Philadelphia not only clinched the NFC East Sunday; it returned to the top of the NFC, period. So order has been restored to the conference, right?
Wrong. Never have the Eagles been more vulnerable than they are today.
Reason? I’ll give you two. First, and most important, there’s that knee injury to MVP candidate Carson Wentz. Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson on Monday confirmed reports that his quarterback suffered a torn ACL and is lost for the season.
Uh-oh. Say goodnight to the Eagles and the Super Bowl … and, yes, I know Nick Foles once took them to the playoffs. But that was four years ago. He also lost the only playoff game he started. Bottom line: Carson Wentz he’s not.
Second, there’s Minnesota. And Carolina. And the Saints … the Rams … and maybe Atlanta. All are capable of winning the conference, with Carolina scoring a signature win with Sunday’s 31-24 defeat of Minnesota, ending the Vikings’ eight-game winning streak.
It was Carolina as we knew it in 2015, or when it won the NFC — with Cam Newton making big plays, Jonathan Stewart running over and through the league’s third-ranked run defense and the Panthers’ defense producing critical takeaways and sacks. Carolina had six sacks of Case Keenum, and that’s significant because Minnesota allowed only 14 in its previous 12 games.
But that’s not all. The Panthers produced three takeaways, too. So what? So, they had 11 entering the game. Defense wins championships, remember? And the Panthers won with defense and a running game Sunday.
Then there’s Minnesota. The Vikings were on the road five of the past six games and went 4-1. Pretty good. Now they’re home for two of their last three games. Even better. Plus, they have one of the league’s elite defenses, leading the NFC in fewest points allowed.
That takes us to New Orleans. The Saints hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with Carolina and, like the Vikings, are home for two of their last three — with one of those two against the only opponent (Atlanta) on their schedule with a winning record.
Finally, there are the Rams, who just proved they can stay with the Eagles. That’s the good news. The bad: Two of their last three are road games, including at Seattle. So we might as well add the Seahawks to this group, too, and keep this in mind: Carolina, Atlanta, New Orleans and Seattle all have quarterbacks who have been to the Super Bowl.
All I know is that, with Wentz lost for the season, the NFC suddenly looks more uncertain than ever.
WHY THERE SHOULD BE CONCERN IN PITTSBURGH, TOO
The Pittsburgh Steelers pledged to win Sunday’s game for hospitalized linebacker Ryan Shazier, and they did. In fact, they won their eighth straight in familiar fashion, with Chris Boswell capping a come-from-behind rally with a last-minute field goal — the fourth time in the last five games that’s happened. At 11-2, the Steelers haven’t lost since early October, have the AFC North clinched and are tied with New England at the top of the AFC.
Nevertheless, they may be in trouble … and I can tell you why in one word: Defense. Without Shazier, there’s not enough of it.
Look at the Steelers’ last game. Without Shazier for all but three plays, the Steelers allowed Cincinnati — then ranked last in rushing — to shred them for 130 yards on the ground. Still, they won … but only after overcoming a 17-point deficit.
Then on Sunday night, they couldn’t stop the run again, this time with Baltimore ripping them for 413 total yards, including 152 yards rushing and three rushing TDs, as well as 38 points. Yet they won again. And so far, so good.
But now … well, now surging New England is next, and the Patriots not only have the league’s top-rated quarterback in Tom Brady; they have the 10th best rushing attack and a 14-game road winning streak, too. They also have a defense that hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in any of its last 10 starts … all victories.
If defense wins championships … and it does … where does that leave Pittsburgh? Yes, the Steelers are the second-best team in the AFC, but, with each week, the gap between them and the Patriots seems to be widening while the gap between them and the rest of the conference narrows.
- Give Mike McCarthy this: His patience with Brett Hundley paid off. The guy saved the Packers’ season with that come-from-behind defeat of Cleveland and was 3-4 as a starter in place of Aaron Rodgers. Yeah, I know, Green Bay’s chances of reaching the playoffs are slim, but at least they have a chance … thanks to Hundley.
- And they have a chance because Rodgers reportedly is ready to return. McCarthy won’t talk about him, but so what? The Packers won three of their last four in 2013 … or the last time he returned from a separated shoulder … and reached the playoffs. They’ll have to be better this time around, and even then it might not be enough.
- Nobody is more interested in having Rodgers back than wide receiver Jordy Nelson. Nelson had six TDs in his first four games … or until Rodgers bowed out. He not only hasn’t score since then; he hasn’t had more than 35 yards in any of his last seven games and only two with more than 24.
- Yes, Virginia, Jacksonville is legit. That was a HUGE win over Seattle, not only because it ended the Seahawks’ four-game road win streak and clinched Jacksonville’s first winning season since 2007, but because it was Seattle … and nowhere are the Seahawks better than this time of year. The Jags will win the AFC South, and heaven help the playoff opponent that must solve that defense.
- Welcome back, Eli … now goodbye. It’s time for the Giants to roll out rookie Davis Webb at quarterback. Look, it made no sense to return Eli to the starting lineup after his string of consecutive starts ended … other than to satisfy angry Giants’ fans. So that’s the next mistake to correct.
- Note that might interest only me: Arizona has not lost a game on CBS in over five years … or since an Oct. 14, 2012 defeat to Buffalo in overtime.
- Robert Mueller’s next investigation: Discover why Houston’s Tom Savage was allowed back on the field for a series after going through concussion protocol. Coach Bill O’Brien says it was because he was checked and cleared. Then he said Savage was later removed because he was checked again and wasn’t cleared. Sorry, that’s not going to fly.
- That makes Jimmy Garoppolo 4-0 as a starter for his career. Maybe, just maybe, this is the first backup quarterback Bill Belichick shouldn’t have let get away.
- Overlooked in the Chargers’ four-game winning streak: Philip Rivers didn’t throw an interception in any of those contests. Also overlooked: Rivers has been sacked only four times the past five games and 15 times all year.
- When can another loss be another win? When you’re the Cleveland Browns. The Browns should have the first pick of the draft for the second straight year but also have Houston’s first choice … and the Texans keep moving up the board after losing for the sixth time in their last seven starts.
- It’s not often Baltimore blows an 11-point fourth-quarter lead. But the Ravens are hardly finished for the season. They have games left against, in order, the Browns, Colts and Bengals — a combined 8-31 — and their offense suddenly has a pulse, scoring 82 points the past two games.
- When Mueller finishes with the Savage inquiry, he can look into this: How in the world did officials miss that Aaron Colvin hold of Doug Baldwin on the Seahawks’ last snap? Unreal. In an era where officials overreach, they ignore an obvious call.
- Adios, Marvin Lewis.
- The reality for Dallas: Even though the Cowboys get Ezekiel Elliott back after next weekend, they finish the season vs. Seattle and Philadelphia. One more reality: It already may be over for anyone with six losses.
- I wish the NFL would “complete the process” on the Catch Rule and ditch it. Enough is enough.
- Another reason why nobody wants to play the Chargers now: Keenan Allen. In his last four games, he has 39 catches for 547 yards and four TDs.
- Get used to it, John Dorsey. It’s Cleveland.
- Drew Brees is right: For a league that preaches player safety, Thursday games make no sense. They just make more injuries.
- Let’s hear it for Frank Gore. The guy’s 34, yet he just carried a career-high 36 times for a season-high 130 yards … and he did it in a blizzard. With each week, the guy begins to cement a Hall-of-Fame resume.
- If the season were to end today the Buffalo Bills would be in the playoffs for the first time since 1999. But the Bills are doomed, and here’s why: They still have another game vs. New England … and Tom Brady is 27-3 vs. the Bills.
PITTSBURGH QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER. He becomes the first quarterback this year to throw for over 300 yards on Baltimore (he had 506) and the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for 500 or more yards three times in a career. Over his last four games, Big Ben has thrown for 1,446 yards (an average of 361.5 per game), 12 touchdowns and three interceptions.
SAN FRANCISCO COACH KYLE SHANAHAN. The last time the 49ers won back-to-back games was 2014.
RAMS’ RB TODD GURLEY. If Antonio Brown can be mentioned as an MVP candidate (see Cris Collinsworth), so can Gurley … with Sunday’s two-touchdown performance vs. the Eagles more proof. He leads the NFC in rushing and yards from scrimmage. He leads the NFL in touchdowns. And without him, the Rams aren’t on top of the NFC West.
EXCEDRIN. It sponsors the Browns’ “Perfect Season” parade, which happens only if the team goes 0-16. With three weeks to go, the parade is still on.
BUFFALO QB JOE WEBB. He’s the emergency QB, and he wasn’t supposed to play. But he did … in a blizzard … and somehow helped guide Buffalo to a 13-7 overtime win that keeps the Bills’ playoff hopes alive.
ARIZONA WR LARRY FITZGERALD. He just moved past Hall-of-Fame candidate Randy Moss for third place in most career receiving yards.
PHILADELPHIA. Never has a victory felt so bad.
OAKLAND WR AMARI COOPER. The Raiders lose another, and he’s hurt … again.
SEATTLE QB RUSSELL WILSON. His MVP campaign just took a hit. That’s only the third time in Wilson’s career he suffered a three-interception game, with those turnovers leading to 10 Jacksonville points.
TENNESSEE. Now you know why it’s hard to take these guys as a serious playoff threat. They can lose ugly just as easily as they can win that way.
BALTIMORE RAVENS DEFENSE. It has three shutouts this season and entered Sunday’s game leading the league in takeaways. But it couldn’t protect an 11-point fourth-quarter lead after its offense put up 38.
MINNESOTA PK KAI FORBATH. He’s missed five kicks the past four games.
N.Y. JETS QB JOSH McCOWN. One week after he’s AFC Offensive Player of the Week, he’s AFC Pinata of the Week, knocked out of the Denver game with a broken left hand.
SUNDAY’S REPORT CARD
CHICAGO QB MITCH TRUBISKY. That was his best game of the season, and it’s something for Bears’ fans to hang on to in the offseason.
HOUSTON WR DEANDRE HOPKINS. Despite working with two backup quarterbacks, he continues to be the best thing in Houston outside of Jose Altuve. Hopkins had 149 yards receiving Sunday… or nearly as much yardage as the rest of the team.
BUFFALO RB LESEAN McCOY. He carries a season-high 32 times. He runs for a season-high 156 yards. He averages 4.9 yards per and scores the game-winning touchdown in overtime … all in the snow.
DALLAS QB DAK PRESCOTT. He couldn’t beat the Giants a year ago, but he did this season .. twice … and seldom looked better than Sunday when he threw for 300 yards for the first time this season.
BALTIMORE RB ALEX COLLINS. That’s five touchdowns in his past four games and a season-high 120 yards rushing.
PITTSBURGH WR ANTONIO BROWN. He had three 100-yard games in his career vs. Baltimore, but none in his last five starts. And he didn’t have a 100-yard game Sunday night, either. He had a 200-yard game (213, to be exact) vs. a defense that, until Sunday, hadn’t allowed a 300-yard passer.
DENVER QB TREVOR SIEMIAN. He didn’t throw an interception, and he won — ending an eight-game Denver slide. Let’s just leave it at that.
CLEVELAND QB DESHONE KIZER. Just when it looked like he’d ace the exam, he throws that gawd-awful interception in overtime that, ultimately, produces a Green Bay victory.
RAMS’ QB JARED GOFF. Yes, he threw for two touchdowns and put up another 100-plus passer rating. But his fumble midway through the fourth quarter led to the Eagles’ game-winning field goal. What’s more, he couldn’t push the club one yard on its ensuing possession, one that killed their chance for victory.
INDIANAPOLIS COACH CHUCK PAGANO. Not sure what was going on there at the end of the fourth quarter, but I do know this: I would’ve tried much harder to get Adam Vinatieri closer than a 43-yard try for the game-winning field goal.
TENNESSEE QB MARCUS MARIOTA. With two more interceptions he has more picks this season (12) than he has touchdown passes (10). “I have to be better,” he said. Agreed.
OAKLAND QB DEREK CARR. Sixty-nine passing yards in the first three quarters? “We sucked,” he said later. “It is all my fault.” Not quite, but no argument with the first half of that comment.
SEATTLE DISCIPLINE. So the Seahawks lost. It happens. But what happened at the end of the Jacksonville game was disgraceful. Lots of guilty parties, and I’m talking about the fans’ behavior, too.
SUNDAY’S HALL OF FAMER
CAROLINA RB JONATHAN STEWART. Talk about timing. That’s the first time he scored three times in his career … and it matched his season output prior to Sunday. He also had a game-high 103 yards rushing. At 30, Stewart is supposed to be on the elevator going down, but that’s his second 100-yard performance in the last four games.
SUNDAY’S HALL OF SHAMER
EVERYONE ASSOCIATED WITH THE JETS’ OFFENSE. At one point in the third quarter, the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas had more yardage than the entire Jets’ offense. When it was over, he was only seven yards short with 93. Honest. The Jets had 100 yards in offense, six first downs and zero points. I don’t know if it was John Morton’s play calling, the Denver defense, the altitude or what. But I do know how I’d characterize it. Cue “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” All together now … Stink. Stank. Stunk.