The 12th Sunday of NFL regular season action lived up to the hype. From Tom Brady and the New England Patriots destroying a previously first-place Detroit Lions team at home to the Seattle Seahawks coming through big time in a must-win matchup against the Arizona Cardinals, the playoff race in both conferences just heated up a tad.
This doesn’t even take into account some late-game heroics from Tony Romo and the Cowboys against a really competitive New York Giants team. Heck, even the Miami Dolphins made a game of it against the Denver Broncos at Mile High.
As we have done each week this season, here is a look at 10 takeaways from Sunday’s Week 12 NFL action.
1. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks with Season-Saving Wins
It might not have been pretty, but the 49ers earned their third consecutive win against a bad Washington Redskins team on Sunday afternoon. Relying on what has been a dominating defense, Jim Harbaugh’s squad made Robert Griffin III look like roadkill throughout the game. The enigmatic Redskins signal caller was sacked five times as the Redskins put up 77 net passing yards on the afternoon. But to say that issues remain on offense for the 49ers would be a major understatement. Be it play-calling or turnovers, the 49ers simply couldn’t move the ball against a poor Redskins defense. Despite this, San Francisco goes into its Thanksgiving night matchup with Seattle tied for the final playoff spot in the NFC.
As it relates to the Seahawks, they were much more impressive in their 19-3 victory against a previously one-loss Arizona Cardinals team. While their offense didn’t turn short fields into touchdowns early on, Dan Quinn’s defense showed signs of the domination that it displayed in each of the past couple seasons. Arizona compiled just over 200 yards and was 3-of-12 on third down conversations, something Seattle’s defense had struggled with earlier this year. However, the biggest news out of this game was the play of Russell Wilson, who was under consistent pressure (sacked seven times). He put up 284 total yards of offense and didn’t turn the ball over once.
With Arizona’s loss to the Seahawks, both Seattle and San Francisco are just two games back in the NFC West. This now makes their Thanksgiving night matchup all that much more important. For the 49ers, it will be about performing at an even decent level on offense. And for the Seahawks, Wilson simply needs to see more pass protection up front. But as it is, both teams saved their seasons with wins on Sunday.
2. Mike Smith’s Fate Sealed in Atlanta
Now at 4-7 on the season, Atlanta’s hope of even winning a disastrous NFC South took a major hit in another late-game loss against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. After taking a 24-23 lead in the last minute of the game, Atlanta’s defense allowed Brian Hoyer and the Browns to drive 61 yards on seven plays for a game-winning field goal.
Unfortunately for head coach Mike Smith, his continual issues with clock management played a major role here. Only needing a field goal for the win and with time running out for Cleveland, the Falcons called a foolish time out on second down with the team in field goal position. Then on third down, Matt Ryan attempted a deep pass to Devin Hester, which fell incomplete.
If the Falcons had just sat on the ball, they could have forced the Browns to use one of the THREE timeouts the road team had. Obviously, this latest failure of clock management may very well spell doom for Smith’s tenure in Atlanta. And while the team is still right in the thick of the NFC South race, a division championship might not enough for Smith to keep his job.
3. The Denver Broncos Still aren’t Right
Denver may have taken care of business against a game Miami Dolphins team at home on Sunday, but it was far from impressive. John Fox’s team took an 11-point deficit into the fourth quarter before putting up 21 unanswered points to grab victory from the jaws of defeat. Peyton Manning also tallied four touchdowns and a ridiculous 135.3 quarterback rating.
With that said, three-point victories against average teams at home are not going to do a whole bunch to separate Denver from the other two teams (Kansas City and San Diego) in the AFC West. Unlike previous weeks, it was the Broncos defense that really didn’t step up. Even without starting left tackle Branden Albert, the Dolphins were able to put up 25 first downs and 36 points on the road against what has to be considered a talented defense. In order for Denver to pull away in a difficult AFC West, it’s going to have to start playing good football on both sides of the ball. Over the course of the past few weeks, it’s been either/or.
4. Brian Hoyer is the Man in Cleveland
Hoyer may have struggled for nearly four quarters against a bad Falcons defense on Sunday, but he came through when it counted the most. With his team down by one point and needing to drive down the field for a potential game-winning field goal, Hoyer shut his critics (and Johnny Manziel’s girlfriend) up big time. He completed 4-of-5 passes for 61 yards in order to give Billy Cundiff a clear shot at a game-winning field goal from 37 yards out.
Now at 7-4 on the season, Cleveland remains right in the midst of the AFC North and conference playoff races heading into Week 13. It also boasts the very same record as San Francisco and Seattle, which is absolutely amazing in and of itself.
5. AFC West Will be a Dog Fight Moving Forward
We covered the Broncos a bit earlier here, but both the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers remain just one game behind the defending conference champs heading into Week 13. Looking at it realistically, especially though the lens of the entire AFC, only two of these teams are going to make the playoffs (at most).
Kansas City’s loss to the previously winless Oakland Raiders was huge for the Chargers, who held off a competitive St. Louis Rams squad on Sunday. With both teams at 7-4, the Week 17 matchup between the Chiefs and Chargers in San Diego may be a do-or-die outing. And without getting too far ahead of ourselves here, Kansas City will also host Denver this upcoming weekend. It’s these divisional games that will likely decide the winner of the AFC West as well as the one wild card team that’s likely going to come out of the division.
6. Thanksgiving Matchups Now Take on Even More Importance
Following their blowout loss to the New England Patriots in Sunday, Jim Caldwell’s Detroit Lions are one game back in the NFC North. They will also be tasked with taking on a suddenly hot Chicago Bears team at home on Thanksgiving. A loss there, and there will be a ton of concern about Detroit’s playoff hopes moving forward. As it is, the Lions are now tied with San Francisco and Seattle for the final playoff spot in the NFC.
Speaking of Seattle and San Francisco, these two heated division rivals will take on one another on Thanksgiving night in Santa Clara. Now only two games back of Arizona in the NFC West and clearly in the mix for a playoff spot, this is a huge game for the last two conference champions. Coming off a short week, this game is bigger for the 49ers than the Seahawks. No one in their right mind expects Colin Kaeperinck and Co. to go into Seattle in Week 15 and win, so they must take care of business at home. Fortunately for the 49ers, Seattle has not beaten them in Northern California since 2008.
On the east coast (kinda), the Dallas Cowboys will play host to the Philadelphia Eagles in a matchup that will decide who is in first place in the NFC East heading into Week 14. As with the 49ers, this game appears to be bigger for the home team. By virtue of its win against the New York Giants on Sunday night, Dallas has an opportunity to take sole possession of first place away from the Eagles. And with another game remaining in Philadelphia next month, Jason Garrett’s squad desperately needs this.
7. Quarterback Play will be the Houston Texans Undoing
Houston had an opportunity to remain in the AFC Playoff picture here, but Ryan Mallett literally threw it away against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The fourth-year quarterback, who was making his second career start, put up just 189 yards and an interception on 45 pass attempts. In addition to that absurd stat line, Houston converted just 4-of-14 third-down opportunities in the 22-13 loss.
Hoping that Mallett would prove to be the answer at quarterback, the Texans may very well be back to square one at that position. Their defense played pretty darn good football, but couldn’t get off the field on third down (Cincinnati was 11-of-20 on conversions). Barring continued domination on defense, it’s highly unlikely that the Texans can win on a consistent basis. And to be honest, Sunday’s loss is a prime example of this. While not playing elite football, J.J. Watt and Co. weren’t able to bail out an offense that simply couldn’t move the ball down the field.
8. The New England Patriots are on an Entirely New Level
Following a dominating 34-9 win over the Detroit Lions, New England has now won its last four games by 20-plus points, three of them coming against teams that are currently over .500 on the season. Proving that father time has yet to catch up to him, Tom Brady had another elite performance against a Lions defense that was among the best in the NFL coming in. He completed 38-of-53 passes for 349 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. This brings Brady’s seven-game total to 23 touchdowns and four interceptions. In no way is it a coincidence that the Patriots are 7-0 during that span.
Defensively, New England held an overrated Matthew Stafford to 18-of-46 passing with zero touchdowns and one interception. Overall, the Lions converted just 5-of-17 third-down opportunities and tallied three field goals.
It’s this type of domination that’s been par for the course for a Patriots team that now stands at 9-2 and with the best record in the AFC. And to be real here for a second, the AFC Playoffs are now almost guaranteed to go through Gillette Stadium. Good luck with that rest of the conference.
9. Lions Just Can’t Beat Good Teams
Matthew Stafford is now 0-16 on the road against teams that finish that particular season with a record of .500 or better. His performance Sunday against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium is yet another notch in the overrated label that seems to be catching on to Stafford in recent seasons. This blowout loss also represented Detroit’s second consecutive defeat, and places it in a tie with both San Francisco and Seattle for the final playoff spot in the NFC.
While the Lions do have a favorable schedule moving forward, Stafford’s recent performance has to be worrisome for Jim Caldwell’s squad. Detroit has failed to score a touchdown over the last two games. And during that span, Stafford is completing 49 percent of his passes with a 55.1 quarterback rating. If he doesn’t get it together soon, the Lions will be on the outside looking in come January.
10. The Dallas Cowboys aren’t Going Away This Season
The narratives were set. Tony Romo and the Cowboys took control of the ball with just over three minutes remaining and the team down by four points against the New York Giants. It was high time Romo threw a game-ending interception, right?
Like he has done so many times over the past three seasons, the unheralded Cowboys quarterback led his team back with a game-winning touchdown-scoring drive to defeat the Giants 31-28. It might not have been a pretty overall performance from the Cowboys, but they remain in a first-place tie with the Philadelphia Eagles heading into an all-important Thanksgiving day matchup. Now winners of eight games this season, it’s readily apparent that the Cowboys aren’t going to go quietly into the night like we have seen in the past. Sunday’s performance against a competitive Giants team proved this to a T.