I already talked a bit about the Jets victory over Dallas on Saturday night, although there was admittedly no mention of Thursday's win by the Rams over the Bucs, which effectively ends what slim playoff hopes Tampa Bay once had for this season. The Rams are not going anywhere, either.
But a lot of games with some huge playoff ramifications happened yesterday, so let's review them:
Panthers 38, NY Giants 35 - This was one of the most intriguing matches heading into the weekend, and it was probably the most fascinating game to watch, as well. For most of the game, the Panthers looked like the superpower that their 13-0 entering the game would suggest that they were. But then, the Giants rallied, big time! They came back from a 35-7 margin to tie the game very late in the fourth quarter, and there was mention of how only the 49ers had managed to overcome such a huge margin to mount a comeback victory during the regular season (the Colts overcame a 28-point margin against the Chiefs a few years ago, and the Bills overcame a 35-3 margin in the 1992-93 season against the then Houston Oilers, but those were both playoff games).
So, this was suddenly very exciting, particularly with the Giants history of defeating formerly perfect teams, such as the 1934 Chicago Bears in the NFL Championship, the 1998 Denver Broncos, and most famously, the 2007 New England Patriots. What a heartbreaking way to lose, should Carolina fall! And it would add still more to the legacy of the G-Men as the slayers of (excuse the word play here), giants.
To their credit, however, the Panthers responded like champions. Cam Newton calmly led a composed, patient Panthers offense down the field, fairly deep into Giants territory, setting up the winning field goal to preserve their undefeated season.
Yes, the Carolina Panthers are now 14-0, only the fourth team in NFL history to have managed to win all of their games this late into the season, and the third time that this has happened in my lifetime (the 2007 New England Patriots and the 2009 Indianapolis Colts also started off 14-0). The Panthers have to travel to Atlanta next weekend, and then host Tampa Bay the following weekend. Neither of those teams are above .500, and the Panthers surely have a shot at making history by completing the perfect regular season. Let's see if they do it!
For the Giants, this loss now places them in a second place tie with the Eagles, who also lost to a top tier NFC team yesterday against Arizona. With Washington winning and at 7-7, the significance of the Washington-Philadelphia showdown next week is elevated that much more, and at least right now, with two games remaining in the season (one against the Eagles), the Giants are on the outside looking in. A costly loss for New York.
On a side note, the highly anticipated match between shutdown Panthers cornerback Josh Norman and Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham, two of the guys often considered the best at their position, wound up being more of a circus, than anything else. Both men were at times overly rough, although Beckham was showing very unsportsmanlike conduct, while the refs sat by and did nothing. That included a helmet to helmet hit when Beckham blindsided Norman, which is now a source of debate, with a seemingly unanimous decision among NFL experts that Beckham deserves some form of punishment, perhaps at least a one-game suspension. Beckham came across as immature, petty, and a bit of a prima donna with the unprofessional performance and his ridiculous antics during yesterday's game. Most people feel that Beckham deserved to be ejected from the game for his helmet to helmet hit.
However, I would not want to end a review of this game, which really was a great game, on a negative note. So, let me say just how impressive Cam Newton was. If there was any doubt that he should be the NVP at season's end, this game erased those. Newton became the first player in NFL history to throw for five touchdowns and run for over 100 yards in an NFL game! He kept the Giants defense off balance all game, including during that clinching final drive. Overall, he completed 25 of 45 passes for 340 yards and those five touchdowns, plus 100 yards on eight rushes. he was both the leading passer and the leading rusher for the Carolina Panthers yesterday. This is the fifth season where he has over 3,000 yards passing and 500 yards rushing combined. Incredible!
Arizona 40, Philadelphia 17 - The Cardinals are for real, and they showed it with a huge and convincing road win at Philadelphia last evening. The Cardinals blew out the Eagles, and earned the NFC West title with the victory, while the future for Philadelphia is a lot less clear. The loss dropped them to 6-8, one game out against Washington, who can clinch the division title with a win at Philly next weekend. However, should the Eagles win the contest, they would once again be tied with Washington for first place and, complicating matters even more, the Giants could win and earn a three-way tie, and the Giants will host the Eagles in the final week of the season. Not so complicated for the NFC West champion Cardinals, who need only one more win, or a Packers loss, to clinch the second seed in the NFC playoffs, which comes with a bye week.
Pittsburgh 34, Denver 27 - Another huge contest with enormous playoff implications! The Denver Broncos started off the season 7-0, then dropped two contests. But they bounced back with some huge wins, including handing the then 10-0, undefeated Patriots their first loss of the season. But a very costly upset loss last week against Oakland, followed by this defeat at Pittsburgh, in a game where they at one point led by 17 points, is even costlier. The Broncos are now 10-4, only one game ahead of Kansas City, and they also lost (at least for the time being) a tie with Cincy for the second seed throughout the AFC playoffs. Denver will likely qualify for the playoffs, although even that is not assured, since Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and the New York Jets are all 9-5, and hunting for the postseason themselves. Another loss, and things would start to get really scary for Denver, a team that might find themselves suddenly in a tie and in need of tiebreaker scenarios to clinch even a playoff spot, which seemed unthinkable a few weekends ago. But this team has not scored any points in the second half now for three straight weeks, and that is not the sign of a surging team, or even a team ready for the playoffs, by any stretch of the imagination. As for the Steelers, they look red hot, one of the hottest teams in the AFC.
Kansas City 34, Baltimore 14 - The Chiefs became the first team to start off a season 1-5, following five straight losses, and then to bounce back with an eight game winning streak. They also might be the first team in NFL history to recover from a 1-5 start to qualify for the postseason. In fact, the AFC West division title might not be out of the question, if Denver continues their slide. Kansas City remained hot by dismantling the Ravens in Baltimore, moving a step closer to qualifying for the playoffs and remaining red hot, while Baltimore's misery continues for what is, for them, surely a very long season.
Houston 16, Indianapolis 10 - The Texans were able to run the ball very effectively, and their defense held the Colts in check, as Houston finally managed to win in Indianapolis for the first time in their franchise history, earning not only the win, but the driver's seat for the rest of the season for the AFC South division title. Right now, they look like they earned the AFC South title, and one more win in their last two games should just about do it. For the Colts, a loss like this following last weeks humiliating blowout loss at Jacksonville essentially defines just how miserably this season has gone for them.
Cincinnati 24, San Francisco 14 - The Bengals won a much needed victory on the road at San Francisco, home of this year's Super Bowl, which the Bengals would, of course, hope to be playing a second road game in about a month and a half or so. They visited the 49ers, a team that the Bengals have historically suffered some truly heartbreaking losses against, most notably the two Super Bowl losses in franchise history.
New England 33, Tennessee 16 - The Patriots predictably asserted themselves as the likely top seed in the AFC with another convincing win yesterday. This one was at home against the Titans, and they did not exactly win by as big of a blow out as some (such as myself) kind of expected. But win they did, and they simply keep the thing rolling, as they look right now like a team fully capable of at least returning back to the Super Bowl.
Washington 35, Buffalo 25 - Two teams with losing records still clinging to playoff hopes entering this one. But Washington's win essentially shut the door on what playoff hopes the Bills still had, while it catapulted Washington to sole possession of first place in the NFC East, with both the Giants and the Eagles losing yesterday. Kirk Cousins further established himself as the starting quarterback for Washington, completing 22 of 28 for 319 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions. An incredible performance by him that allowed his team to jump out to a huge early lead that Buffalo simply could not come back from. Earlier this season, after mounting a huge comeback for a win, Cousins was captured turning to the cameras and screaming, "You like that!" That has now become the unofficial phrase for the entire team right now. Still, they have to travel to Philadelphia next weekend for a big showdown that might be for the NFC East title itself!
Minnesota 38, Chicago 17 - The Vikings were looking shaky a few weeks ago, but a tough performance in a loss at Arizona last week, coupled with a convincing win yesterday against Chicago, establishes them as a playoff caliber team. With Petersen out due to injury, the offensive load fell on Teddy Bridgewater, who still had a lot of doubters. But he went some distance towards answering his naysayers, completing 17 of 20 passes for 231 yards and four touchdowns, as he led the Vikings over the Bears, and all but securing a playoff spot, while also keeping alive Minnesota's hopes for a division title.
Green Bay 30, Oakland 20 - The Raiders lost to the Packers yesterday, and in the process, lost what slim hopes they had for earning a playoff berth. They might be going to Los Angeles, or they might not. It is hard to say. But they will play their final home game of this season this Thursday. For the Packers, however, a solid victory that gives them a playoff berth for sure, and keeps them in the driver's seat for another division title.
Seattle 30, Cleveland 13 - The Cleveland Browns jumped ahead early with a touchdown and a 7-0 lead, but Seattle outscored them 30-6 the rest of the way. It was all rather predictable, as the Seahawks established themselves further as a playoff team, while the Browns established themselves further as a horrendous team.
Atlanta 23, Jacksonville 17 - The Falcons finally ended their massive losing streak, even though it surely cost them any real chance at the playoffs. Still, the victory surely knocked the Jaguars out of contention as well. A very costly loss for Jax, who suffered the death blow to their thin playoff chances, allowing the Falcons to keep what small hopes they have for the playoffs alive for at least one more week.
San Diego 30, Miami 14 - The Dolphins and Chargers played a game last weekend in what once was a pretty decent rivalry, particularly following the 1981 playoffs, when these two franchises played in a true classic. They are both far from that level these days, and the Chargers seem to be playing their final games in San Diego, as they appear to be well on their way to Los Angeles. But at least they gave their fans in San Diego something to cheer about yesterday, with a solid win over the Miami Dolphins, allowing the fans to reminisce a bit about the good old days. This was the Chargers final home game of the season, and it felt like the final game in San Diego, period. If so, what a way for the Chargers to win it, and it could not have come against a better rival than the Dolphins.