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Top 10 takeaways from NFL Week 12

Derek Carr

Week 12 of the NFL season really did a number on some disappointing teams around the league. From the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals dropping must-win games to the Carolina Panthers falling to a superior Oakland Raiders squad, some teams were proven to be frauds as we enter December’s slate of action.

Meanwhile, some of the most surprising teams in the NFL continued to prove why they have been among the top stories thus far this season. Despite late-game scares, both the Dallas Cowboys and Raiders proved victorious at home. On the same note, the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants took care of business against hapless competition to push their win streaks to six.

The NFL Playoff picture seemed to get a lot less cloudy during Week 12 of the NFL season. It’s on this note that we look at the top-10 takeaways from this week’s NFL action.

1. Close the door on these pretenders

Bruce Arians

The Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals headed into Sunday’s action needing wins to remain somewhat relevant in the playoff race. Both teams lost in different ways to pretty much put the final nail in the coffin of their postseason hopes.

For the Bengals, it was always going to be an uphill battle without the likes of Giovani Bernard and A.J. Green against the league’s second-best defense. And in reality, Andy Dalton and Co. just couldn’t do enough to fend off an average effort from the Baltimore Ravens.

Dalton may have put up 283 yards without an interception, but he turned the ball over twice on fumbles. Additionally, as has been the case all season, red-zone struggles doomed the Bengals. All said, three different possessions that ended inside Baltimore’s 20 culminated in a total of six points for Cincinnati.

Now at 3-7-1 and with just one win since late September, the Bengals are as good as done in the AFC Playoff race. The only remaining drama here is whether Marvin Lewis will be shown the door and if Vontaze Burfict will continue to make a fool of himself on the field (more on that here).

Over in the NFC, Arizona entered the season with Super Bowl aspirations after losing to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship game this past January. Now, heading into Week 13, Arizona finds itself at 4-6-1 and two games out of the final wild card spot in the conference.

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, it was the team’s defense that decided to let Bruce Arians down against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. All said, the Cardinals yielded season highs in first downs (28) and points (38) in what was a blowout loss at the Georgia Dome.

It’s looking really murky for the Cardinals here. Not only are they down two in the race for the wild card, they are facing a three-game deficit in the NFC West. That’s just not what the team had envisioned a few short months ago.

2. Tremendous AFC West tilt on Sunday Night Football

The Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos may be second-class citizens in the AFC West. That’s fine and dandy. But both teams have playoff and Super Bowl aspirations. This was more than evident Sunday night in Denver, with the division rivals going back and forth in a game that saw Chiefs come out on top 30-27 in overtime.

For most of the night, it was offensive inepetitude and dominance on the defensive end of the ball that defined this all-important late November matchup. Despite putting up a total of 47 yards in the first 24 minutes of the game, Kansas City took a 9-0 lead on this Tyreek Hill return of a free kick following a safety. The two scores came within seconds of one another.

Though, it wouldn’t be enough to enable the Chiefs to take control of the game. Denver kicked a field goal to pull within one score at the half before taking on their only sustained possession of the game. Kansas City would then follow that up with a touchdown-scoring drive of its own to take the lead.

True to the character of this divisional matchup, neither team would able to pull away there. Denver would go on to score two consecutive touchdowns to take an eight-point lead with two minutes remaining on the clock. That’s when Alex Smith finally hit a hot streak, leading the Chiefs to a 75-yard touchdown scoring drive that culminated in a two-point conversion to force overtime.

Overtime itself was absolutely amazing here. The team traded field goals before the Broncos attempted what would be a game-winning 62-yard field goal by Brandon McManus with under one minute remaining. In what can’t be considered too much of a surprise, he shanked the kick wide left, giving Kansas City the ball inside Denver’s 50 for a chance to in. A few plays later, that’s exactly what Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos would do, nailing a 34-yard field goal for the win.

Now at 8-3 on the season, Kansas City finds itself just one game behind Oakland in the AFC West. It is also alone atop the wild card standings heading into Week 13. This one close game just goes to show us how minimal the difference is between winning and losing in today’s NFL.

3.  Seahawks offense is a problem once again

The Seattle Seahawks had one net passing yard in the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. This came against a Buccaneers defense that headed into Week 12 yielding a 70 percent completion mark and a 102.5 quarterback rating.

When all was said and done, Russell Wilson completed 17-of-33 passes for 151 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions en route to leading Seattle to a grand total of 245 yards. Needless to say, the NFC West leaders dropped the game by the score of 14-5. But what actually happened here?

Russell Wilson

Well, like we’ve seen over the years, it starts up front. Seattle’s offensive line simply couldn’t handle the likes of Noah Spence and Gerald McCoy bringing the pressure. Tampa recorded six sacks on Wilson while hitting the Pro Bowler a grand total of 11 times in a dominant defensive effort.

While we want to throw some praise Tampa Bay’s way, that will have to wait. The larger takeaway here in the NFC is just how poorly Seattle performed on the offensive side of the ball.

Not only did Wilson struggle with pressure in his face, the Seahawks’ offense couldn’t get out of its own way. It converted 1-of-11 third-down opportunities, put up just 16 first downs and saw six drives go for less than 30 yards. A total of two other drives ended without points in Tampa’s area of the field following Wilson interceptions.

This came on the heels of a three-game stretch that saw Seattle put up an average of 29.3 points and 382.3 yards per game. Indeed, it reminds of just how bad this unit played earlier in the season, especially during a 9-3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams back in Week 2.

Seattle should still be just fine in the NFC West. The other three teams in the division also lost. However, the team lost a game on the Dallas Cowboys in the race for the best record in the conference. It is also just a half game up on Atlanta and Detroit for the No. 2 playoff spot in the NFC. That’s what happens when you fail to show up against inferior competition in the NFL.

4. Under-the-radar teams continue to roll

It hasn’t necessarily been sexy for either the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants as of late. That really doesn’t matter. Following Sunday’s action, both of these underrated teams have now won six consecutive games.

For Miami, it came in the form of a hotly-contested home matchup against the one-win San Francisco 49ers. After opening up a three-score lead in the fourth quarter, Miami had to sweat out the end of the game to put Colin Kaepernick and Co. to bed by the score of 31-24. The game itself wasn’t necessarily well played from Miami’s perspective.

The Dolphins’ defense yielded 25 first downs and 475 total yards to one of the worst offenses in the NFL. Heck, Kaepernick himself put up 400-plus total yards at quarterback alone. Miami did, however, force two turnovers. That included one deep in its end of the field on a drive that looked like the 49ers were going to put up points.

Offensively, Ryan Tannehill and Co. took advantage of a horrendous defense. Putting up his best performance of the season, Tannehill completed 20-of-30 passes with three touchdowns and zero picks.

After starting the season 1-4, Miami has won six consecutive games and is tied with the XX for the final wild card spot in the AFC. It might not be pretty, but the team sure is getting the job done for first-year head coach Adam Gase.

Over in the NFC, New York also took advantage of inferior competition. In handing the Cleveland Browns their 12th consecutive loss to start the season, the Giants also announced themselves as one of the hottest teams in the NFL.

Again, it wasn’t pretty. The Giants’ defense let Terrelle Pryor go off for 131 yards on six catches. That should be a tremendous concern for the defense, especially with this team having to face the likes of Antonio Brown and Dez Bryant over the next two weeks.

Heck, it was just a one-score game before Jason Pierre-Paul scooped up a fumble and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown (watch here). Even then, the Browns responded with a touchdown before Odell Beckham Jr. put up his second score of the game to put it away.

It’s not always going to be pretty. Teams will have to claw their way to victories throughout the season, even against inferior competition. It’s in this that the Giants’ sixth consecutive win proved that they’re prepared to win despite not playing their best football. And now, at 8-3 on the season, the playoffs seam like a sure-fire proposition here.

5. Minnesota’s offensive scheme proves to be a turkey

Sam Bradford

It’s now readily apparent that former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner had some major issues with head coach Mike Zimmer before resigning in early November. Turner himself made that clear in an interview on Sunday morning. On the field, maybe Turner himself was on to something.

In the Vikings’ latest meltdown against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving, it was the team’s lack of creativity on the offensive side of the ball that doomed it to yet another loss.

Throwing three-yard slants to fullbacks on third-and-five. No pre-snap motioning from the backfield or receivers. Sam Bradford failing to change the play at the line after seeing something from the defensive alignment. All this came rearing its ugly head against a Detroit Lions defense that’s been among the worst in the NFL covering the pass.

More to this point, Minnesota didn’t scheme to take advantage of the middle of the field with Kyle Rudolph. It also failed to look over the top to Cordarrelle Patterson against a disastrous Lions cornerback group.

In the end, Bradford did complete 31-of-37 passes. But all that passing went for a grand total of 224 yards with an average of less than five yards per pass. That’s not winning football. And in reality, that’s not on Bradford. Interim offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur drew up the blandest scheme we have seen thus far this season. It resulted in a 16-13 loss after Bradford made his first and only mistake of the game.

Now at 6-5 on the season, Minnesota’s playoff hopes are crumbling. It is one game behind Detroit in the NFC North but has also lost both of their head-to-head meetings. Meanwhile, the Vikings also find themselves a half game behind the Washington Redskins for the last wild card spot and have already lost to the Skins this season. Ouch!

6. Raiders cement Super Bowl contender status with clutch win over Panthers

For the first time since the 2002 season the Oakland Raiders will finish with a winning record. They have now won five in a row, including Sunday’s hard-fought 35-32 victory over the now hopeless Carolina Panthers.

It most definitely didn’t come without drama here. And it wasn’t the Raiders’ best performance of the season. Whether it was Cam Newton’s long touchdown strike to Ted Ginn (watch here) or the injury scare to Derek Carr, there were surely some worried fans at Oakland Coliseum Sunday afternoon.

Though, Carr and Co. stepped up when it counted the most late in the game while Khalil Mack and the Raiders’ defense did whatever it could to take a chomp out of the Panthers’ playoff hopes.

Carr led the Raiders to a 17-7 lead late in the second quarter with three scoring drives that combined to put up 174 yards. At one point in the game, he was 14-of-15 passing. Then, practically putting the game on ice, Khalil Mack intercepted a screen pass and took it the distance for a touchdown to put the Raiders up 24-7 at intermission (watch here).

Unfortunately for Oakland, the rest of the game wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Carr suffered a gruesome looking finger injury that forced him from the game for a bit. That in and of itself ended any momentum the Raiders’ offense had put up earlier in the game. The end result was Carolina putting up the next 25 points of the game, culminating in a touchdown from Newton to Kelvin Benjamin to give the struggling squad an eight-point lead.

That’s when Carr and the Raiders’ offense took control, putting up back-to-back scoring drives of 75-plus yards to take the lead and eventually win the game. These two drives, cementing Carr as an MVP candidate, saw him complete 8-of-11 passes.

It’s games like these that help a team take the critical step from surprising playoff contender to likely Super Bowl contender. And based on the New England Patriots’ less-than-stellar performance against the New York Jets, one could easily make the argument that the 9-2 Raiders are now the class of the AFC. Let that sink in as the NFL calendar moves into December.

7. Marcus Mariota is really good

It took a defensive stand from the Tennessee Titans’ defense to come out of Chicago with a win over the hapless Chicago Bears. That’s what the NFL is all about. It’s a team game, and it also has Tennessee within a half game of the AFC South lead heading into Week 13.

But none of this would even be possible if it weren’t for the extraordinary play of second-year signal caller Marcus Mariota. He has seemingly taken that step from wide-eyed youngster to franchise quarterback. Playing yet another mistake-free game, Mariota completed 15-of-23 passes for 226 yards with two scores while adding 46 yards on the ground.

Over the course of the past eight games, Mariota has put up 23 total touchdowns compared to three interceptions. It’s not a coincidence that the Titans are 5-3 during that span.

In reality, the transformations we’ve seen from Mariota as well as second-year Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston have been nothing less than extraordinary. And much like the Bucs in the NFC, these Titans have a real shot at the playoffs. It just goes to show us how important quarterback play is in today’s NFL.

8. NFL Playoff race taking hold

Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott

By virtue of their win over the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving and the Seattle Seahawks’ surprising loss on Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys now hold a two-game lead in the NFC with five weeks remaining. Interestingly, the New York Giants currently boast the second-best record in the conference after their win over the hapless Cleveland Browns.

Though, due to rules relating to playoff seeding, the aforementioned Seahawks would be the No. 2 seed in the NFC if the season ended today. They’d then be followed in line by the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons, who both boast 7-4 records.

While this seems rather clear-cut, it really isn’t. The road to the Super Bowl will likely go through Dallas in the NFC, but that’s pretty much all that’s settled. At 6-5, both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings are just one half game behind the Washington Redskins for the final wild card spot in the conference. Meanwhile, both the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints remain very much alive for a playoff spot.

This is going to make for an interesting final month-plus of the season in what has been an ultra competitive and top-heavy conference thus far this season.

Over in the AFC, it seems a bit more clear cut. The Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots at tied atop the conference with 9-2 records. They’re followed in line by the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans as division leaders. In the race for the wild card spots, the Kansas City Chiefs are holding firm at 8-3 following their win over Denver Sunday night. Meanwhile, the Broncos and Dolphins are tied at 7-4 heading into Week 13.

Unlike the NFC, there seems to be a ton of other squads with legitimate shots at playoff contention moving forward. Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Tennessee are all just one game back in the win column with the Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers also hanging in there with 5-6 records.

Again, this is going to make for an incredibly important final five weeks of the season. With so many matchups boasting postseason implications, we shouldn’t be void of drama.

9. Colin Kaepernick has earned extra look in San Francisco

The San Francisco 49ers might be 0-6 in Kaepernick’s six starts this season. That doesn’t speak well to his ability to lead a winning product on the field. There are also many issues with the 49ers that are not related to Kaepernick himself. So in reality, it would be unfair to pin any of this on him.

The embattled signal caller once again proved on Sunday that he won’t quit. That he won’t go down without a fight. And while San Francisco dropped a franchise-record 10th consecutive game, Kaepernick showed himself well here.

The former Super Bowl quarterback completed 29-of-46 passes for 296 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He also added 113 rushing yards in a hard-fought 31-24 loss to the surging Miami Dolphins. Down 31-14  at one point in the final stanza, Kaepernick came within just two yards of tying the game up as the clock struck zero in the fourth quarter.

Over the course of his past four games, Kaepernick has put up some gaudy numbers.

Numbers aside, the tape tells us a story of a quarterback that’s turned the corner. Sunday’s performance was more a representation of what we saw from Kaepernick when he took over for Alex Smith as San Francisco’s starter during the team’s Super Bowl run back in 2012. And while it won’t be enough to win many games, it might very well force the 49ers to consider Kaepernick as a long-term option once again.

10. Despite some flaws, Cowboys remain NFL’s best

The Dallas Cowboys’ defense yielded 25 first downs and 505 total yards of offense in their 31-26 win over the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving. Heck, Kirk Cousins led Washington to 20 points and an absurd 200 yards on the team’s final three possessions of the game.

We know Washington’s offense can be dynamic. It showed this during a late-game blitz against the Green Bay Packers back in Week 11. However, what we saw late Thursday should act as a warning sign for the Cowboys’ defense moving forward. Play like that consistently and there will be issues.

With all this said, Dallas did just enough to come away with a 10th consecutive victory. Rookie Dak Prescott put up 23 total yards and two touchdowns in yet another mistake-free performance. Meanwhile, potential MVP candidate Ezekiel Elliott added 120 total yards in a workmanlike performance.

When you factor in Dez Bryant’s outing and subsequent feud with John Norman, there’s just too much to like about the Cowboys. It’s hard to take any other team in the NFC seriously as a contender to beat them come January. Seattle’s loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday magnified this even further.

So yes. While there are some flaws on the roster heading into December, the ‘Boys are clearly the favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 51 in Houston. That’s the NFL’s biggest takeaway through 12 weeks.