And then there was one. We're down to our final unbeaten team, and it's the…Carolina Panthers?! The team who won their division just last year with a fantastic 7-8-1 record, AND lost their top receiver this offseason to a knee injury?! If you had predicted this start before the season and weren't actually in the Carolina locker room, please tell me how the future turns out, because clearly you are a fortune-teller. And, you know, it'd be fun to invent the next Google or something. We'll get into the Panthers' success in a bit–check out the highlights from a terrific Week 12.
Most Entertaining Game Of The Week
Who'd have thought that coming into the week, the 3-7 Ravens and the 2-8 Browns would provide the most exciting game we'd see? Aside from the one mind reader who also knew the Panthers would be undefeated 12 weeks into the season, of course. But the diehard fans who just can't bear to miss any football were actually treated to a fascinating contest. Not always because of great plays, though we certainly got quite a few of those, especially if you're a fan of returns: Kaelin Clay took a punt 82 yards to the house for the first score of the game, Karlos Dansby gave Cleveland the lead for the first time in 173 minutes of gameplay with a pick six in the third quarter, and Will Hill returned a blocked field goal 64 yards for a touchdown with no time remaining, giving the Ravens a 33-27 win. On top of that, the Ravens' Matt Schaub was making his first start since 2013, Austin Davis saw playing time for the first time as a Brown, throwing a beautiful 42-yard touchdown to Travis Benjamin with under two minutes to go. We also saw four possessions in the final two minutes, thanks to some interceptions and poor clock management. And the guy who blocked the kick that led to the Ravens win? Defensive end Brent Urban, playing in his first NFL game. He's on top of the world right now.
Who Earned His Paycheck?
Cam Newton and Co. just keep on winning. Newton once again had a rushing score, but this one was nearly all defense. Kurt Coleman had a pick six early, then Luke Kuechly had another. On the VERY NEXT PLAY, Kuechly again intercepted Romo. By the end of the first half, the Panthers had more interception yards (85) than the Cowboys had passing yards (82). From there, it was more defensive dominance, and when Thomas Davis sacked Romo at the end of the third quarter and the Cowboys' beleaguered QB again reached for his shoulder, it was simply time to play out the string.
Don't look now, but the Detroit Lions are making a comeback! After a pair of close wins over the Packers and Raiders, the Lions put on a show in front of their home crowd on Thanksgiving. Matthew Stafford tossed five touchdown passes, three of them to Calvin Johnson. Johnson now has 11 touchdown catches on Thanksgiving, which is the most all-time. The Lions defense looked great, too, allowing just one score before a meaningless garbage time touchdown, and forcing Mark Sanchez into plenty of quick, inaccurate throws, as they harassed him all day. These Lions earned their turkey feasts.
It does not matter one bit who's lining up in the backfield for the Chiefs–they're going to succeed. First it was Jamaal Charles, then Charcandrick West, and now Spencer Ware, who lit up the Bills for 114 yards and a touchdown. The Kansas City offensive line is the best in football, opening up running lanes for whoever the Chiefs want, and also providing plenty of time for Alex Smith to…air it out?! Yep, believe it or not, Smith was a throwing machine on Sunday. He finished with 255 yards and two touchdowns. 160 of those yards and a score went to Jeremy Maclin. That makes 283 straight passes without an interception for Smith, and he can thank his linemen, anchored by Donald Stephenson and Eric Fisher (the latter of whom left with a neck injury) for all the time in the world to throw. The Chiefs picked up a big win in the case of a tiebreaker, and are now above .500 despite starting 1-5.
Anytime the Chargers are feeling down, they know they can travel 2,000 miles to Jacksonville and pick up a win. They broke a six-game losing streak in 2011 by visiting the Jags, and they did so again on Sunday. Philip Rivers, who had only tossed one score in the previous two games combined, racked up an even 300 yards on four touchdowns, and even had a scramble for a first down on fourth-and-7 late in the game. That led to the eventual game winning touchdown. Even with a supporting cast that has been falling apart all season, Rivers climbed to 11th all time in passing touchdowns, and is the 17th quarterback to surpass 40,000 yards. This is a lost season for the Chargers, but it sure is impressive watching Rivers make the most out of his terrible situation.
Everyone seemed to be in a dancing mood on Sunday, and we were rewarded with some terrific touchdown celebrations. T.Y. Hilton nabbed a pair of touchdowns, and rewarded us with a new dance each time. Odell Beckham Jr. had an INSANE one-handed grab as he tiptoed the sideline and fell into the end zone, and with adrenaline still coursing through his superhuman veins, his signature touchdown dance had a lot more oomph to it. Travis Kelce pulled out the "Hit The Quan," the dance Cam Newton unveiled a few weeks earlier. At this rate, the entire league will have done it by the end of next season. You be the judge of who did it better–Kelce's may have had a bit more flair, but it also wasn't done in a defender's face, so perhaps a few less style points there. It really is a toss up. Let's keep these touchdown celebrations going!
Whose Performance Deserves A "Needs Improvement?"
Ndamukong Suh allegedly told the rest of his team, "I own this defense." He's since refuted that report, which is a wise move. Who would want to own this train wreck of a defense? Facing the Jets, a team who had only broken 23 points once in its past five games, it looked like perhaps the Dolphins could get their season back on track. Instead, they let the Jets drop 38 on them, and if not for a garbage-time touchdown with five seconds left, the beatdown would have been even worse than the 38-20 loss Miami ended up with. Chris Ivory scored a touchdown when he was tackled by four different Dolphins, except none of them actually brought him down. Ivory gets a bit of credit for breaking them, but really, it's just a lazy effort from the most disappointing team this year.
The first quarter of the Giants/Redskins game might have been one of the worst displays of football we've seen all season. Of Eli Manning's first three completions, two were to the Redskins, both fairly deep in Giants territory, and they resulted in zero points for Washington. Shane Vereen essentially handed the ball to the linebacker Perry Riley on the first pick, and the second interception is one of the strangest things the human eye has ever witnessed. Will Blackmon tipped the ball, Giants receiver Dwyane Harris caught it, then a second later he got drilled in the back, the ball popped back up in the air, and Blackmon, who was last seen facing the other way about five yards up the field, somehow dove and finished the interception. That wackiness summed up the first quarter (and really the whole game), as we saw Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie drop a sure pick six before giving up a long touchdown bomb to DeSean Jackson later in the game, and Washington also had a field goal blocked. Final score after the first quarter? Zero to zero. Wonderful.
The Jags lost 31-25 to the Chargers, and a big reason why was four trips to the red zone, but only one touchdown to show for it. Twice, Jacksonville had to settle for a field goal, and twice, it was because Blake Bortles ran past the line of scrimmage before throwing the ball. It's sort of the number one rule of football: you have to be behind the line of scrimmage to throw a forward pass. For his part, Bortles does know this. His postgame comments were pretty fantastic. "That's kind of stupid," he said. "I don't know from a coach's perspective what you tell a guy that does that, 'Quit being an idiot?' I don't know. I've never done that in my life, and I did it twice today."
Since arriving in New Orleans in 2009, Sean Payton had only lost one game after a bye week, and it was a tough late loss to the Lions last year. This time around, there would be no drama–the Saints just flat out got beaten. The listless offense only managed six points, the defense allowed wide receiver Cecil Shorts (who had thrown for a touchdown last week) to run for one this time around, and the Saints look like a team who knows the end is coming. It's the first time New Orleans hasn't scored a touchdown in more than a decade. Credit a Texans defense that has been playing some terrific football over the past month, but still, this was difficult to watch.
Despite it being an entertaining game, Mike Tomlin and the Steelers coaching staff isn't bereft of criticism. The first quarter of Pittsburgh's loss to Seattle ended with the Steelers up 3-0, and facing fourth-and-2 from the Seattle 27. Certainly within field goal range, so Tomlin sent out the kicking unit. Except instead of punter Jordan Berry, who typically holds the ball on a field goal, backup quarterback Landry Jones got sent in. Considering it was a fake, the Steelers took an extremely long time in getting the snap off, and Jones' pass to 6'9″ offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva was woefully underthrown. Jeremy Lane picked it off and returned in 54 yards, setting Seattle up quite nicely. The Seahawks capitalized there, and then took advantage of another questionable play call. Perhaps discouraged by their previous failure, the Steelers kicked a field goal with 3:02 remaining, down five points and with the ball on Seattle's 4. This was a game that had 59 total points over the past 40 minutes, and Tomlin suddenly got conservative. He was banking on his defense making a stop. They didn't. In fact, Doug Baldwin's 80-yard touchdown on third-and-10 was quite the display of poor tackling and coverage. Those were major turning points in the game, and in both cases, Pittsburgh chose the unorthodox move. In both cases, it didn't pay off.
Five Fun Facts From Week 12
With 321 passing yards this week, Eli Manning is only the 4th quarterback in NFL history with 11 straight seasons of 3,000 or more yards.
Blake Bortles has thrown an interception in seven straight games, the longest such streak this season.
Before Tracy Porter intercepted him on Thanksgiving night, Aaron Rodgers had thrown 135 passes and 16 touchdowns against the Bears since his last interception.
Cleveland's Karlos Dansby has six interceptions returned for touchdowns, tying him with Derrick Brooks and Bobby Bell for the most by a linebacker.
The Panthers had a fourth-and-40(!) after a 19-yard sack. The Cowboys had a fourth-and-30 in the same game. Apparently they thought they were playing NFL Blitz.
Five Predictions For Week 13
Last Week: 3-2
Slowly making it back to .500. Good big wins for the Panthers, Chiefs and Vikings. And hey, the Browns were a blocked field goal away from a 4-1 week. I'll take it.
Baltimore +4.5 over MIAMI
All 11 of Baltimore games this season have been decided by eight points or fewer. And if the Dolphins are involved in a blowout, it's going to be them on the losing side of things.
NEW YORK GIANTS +2 over New York Jets
The battle for New York is really going to be a battle of who can make the fewest dumb mistakes. It's rare for Eli Manning to have two awful games in a row, and after a dud this week, he should be able to bounce back here.
Kansas City -3 over OAKLAND
Big divisional matchup here, and while Oakland is the more desperate team, Kansas City is the more talented one.
Indianapolis +7 over PITTSBURGH
Matt Hasselbeck still hasn't lost as a starter this year. I know, I'm just as surprised as you are. I think loss number one finally comes in this game, but he keeps it close enough to cover.
WASHINGTON -4 over Dallas
All five of Washington's wins have come at home, and the Matt Cassel-led Dallas passing attack is nothing to fear. This line is still small enough that I feel comfortable taking it.