THE TOP STORYLINES:
Mason Crosby's Last-Second 31-Yard Field Goal Lifts the Green Bay Packers Past the New York Giants 38-35; The Packers Climb to 12-0 and Clinch a Playoff Berth with Their 18th Straight Triumph
This thriller was the game of the day. When was the last time the Green Bay Packers (12-0) had to resort to last-minute heroics to pull one out? With less than a minute to play, NFL MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers led a quick scoring drive to set up Mason Crosby's game-winning kick, completing passes of 24, 27 and 18 yards in a five-play drive. On the day, Rodgers (28-of-46 for 369-4-1) completed passes to eight different receivers with Greg Jennings (5-94-1), Jermichael Finley (6-87-1), Donald Driver (4-34-2) and Jordy Nelson (4-94-0) leading way. Rodgers also led Green Bay in rushing with 32 yards.
The New York Giants (6-6) deserve a nod for regrouping and playing well after a humiliating loss to the New Orleans Saints last Monday night. This loss to Green Bay, however, leaves the G-Men one game behind the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East standings. As usual, Eli Manning carried the team on his back, amassing 347-3-1 on 23-of-40 passing. Manning's lone interception was returned for a score early in the second quarter. Victor Cruz (7-119-0), Hakeem Nicks (7-88-2) and Travis Beckum (1-67-1) were Manning's main targets. Mario Manningham (knee) missed his second straight outing. Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) returned after missing four games, but he has ineffective (11-38-0 and 2-9-0 receiving), but Brandon Jacobs had a decent outing (8-59-1 and 0-0-0 receiving).
The Dallas Cowboys Squander a Sure Victory, Losing 19-13 in Overtime to the Arizona Cardinals
The Cowboys blew a chance to go up two games on the New York Giants in the NFC East standings. I'm not trying to slight the Arizona Cardinals (5-7) for squeaking out a win over a mistake prone and times bumbling Dallas Cowboys (7-5) team, but Jerry Jones Incorporated the Cowboys blew what was a winnable contest. I thought current head coach Jason Garrett was supposed to fix all the screw-ups, game-planning goofs and mental mistakes that we saw Dallas commit with gusto during the Wade Phillips era.
Let's start with the offensive game plan: Tony Romo (28-of-42 for 299-1-0) slung the rock 42 times, but DeMarco Murray, who is considered the answer to the team's we-need-a-franchise-running-back prayers, toted the rock just 12 times (12-38-0 and 0-0-0 receiving) in a contest that was close most of the time. How about shaky clock management? In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys were driving to set up a potential game-winning field goal. Romo had completed a pass to Dez Bryant (8-86-1) with 26 seconds left. However, instead of spending a timeout, Romo let the clock run down to seven seconds, spiking the ball to stop it, which set up a makeable, but long, 49-yard field goal attempt for Dan Bailey. He made the kick, but it was nullified because Garrett called a timeout. When the game resumed, Bailey missed the field goal attempt that counted, sending the game into overtime. In all the years that I have covered the NFL, I have never seen a coach ice his own kicker.
During Arizona's first overtime possession, Kevin Kolb (16-of-25 for 247-1-0), who made his return after missing time with foot and toe injuries, threw a game-winning 52-yard touchdown pass to LaRod Stephens-Howling (2-16-0 rushing). It was just a screen pass and was Stephens-Howling's only catch of the game.
The Denver Broncos Slip Past the Adrian Peterson-less Minnesota Vikings 35-32 on a 23-Yard Matt Prater Field Goal as Time Expired; You-Know-Who Set Up the Winning Scoring Drive and is Now 6-1 as Denver's Starter
Yes, it's another Tim Tebow story; get over it. I know there are quite a few of you Tebow bashers out there. When you're done mumbling some colorful words about my decision to discuss him, let me point out three things: (1) He is 6-1 as the Denver Broncos' starter, (2) the Broncos undoubtedly have rallied around him and (3) Denver has climbed into a tie for first place in the AFC West with the Oakland Raiders.
I had thought Tebow's shortcomings as a passer would be exposed against a team that was capable of scoring more than 20 points in a game, such as the Minnesota Vikings. However, Tebow surprised me, compiling his best passing stat line of 2011: 10-of-15 for 202-2-0. If you want to nitpick, the Vikings' secondary is severely injury depleted. In addition, Demaryius Thomas (4-144-2) amassed a huge chunk of the team's receiving production with Eric Decker (2-25-0) a distant second. In case you're wondering, Tebow rolled up just 4-13-0 rushing.
As for tough-loss Minnesota, rookie Christian Ponder (381-3-2) capably carried the offense without Adrian Peterson (ankle), leading the Vikings to 30 points and 489 yards against an uncharacteristically generous Broncos defense. Percy Harvin (8-156-2) was Ponder's main target. Toby Gerhart (21-91-0 and 8-42-0) played solidly in relief of Peterson.
OTHER NOTABLE STORYLINES:
Cam Newton Sets a New NFL Record with 13 Rushing Scores in a Season as the Carolina Panthers Pound the Josh Freeman-less Tampa Bay Buccaneers 38-19
The Carolina Panthers (4-8) jumped out to a 21-6 lead and never looked back. Cam Newton made up for his weak outing as a passer (just one touchdown pass) by notching not one, not two but three rushing touchdowns and 54 rushing yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-8), who suited up in those hideous "dream-sicle" colored throwback uniforms. Newton's three rushing scores snapped the old record of 12, which was held by Steve Grogan. Jonathan Stewart (14-80-1 and 2-19-0) scored the Panthers' other touchdown. For the Buccaneers, backup Josh Johnson (16-of-29 for 229-1-1 and 5-45-0) played solidly during his first start of 2011, but LeGarrette Blount (11-19-0) struggled mightily against what had been a porous Carolina defense. Tampa Bay has lost six straight, and the Raheem Morris watch is in progress.
Rob Gronkowski Ties the NFL Regular-Season Record for Touchdown Catches by a Tight End as the New England Patriots Down the Indianapolis Colts 31-24; The Still Peyton Manning-less Colts Drop to 0-12
The New England Patriots (9-3) took the Indianapolis Colts (0-12) lightly, but Bill Belichick's crew, unlike other teams, can get away with it, because...they're the Patriots. Although this contest was not the apocalyptic blowout that many had expected, it shouldn't have been as close as the final score suggests. Gronkowski caught two touchdown passes and notched a rushing touchdown on a two-yard run. Tom Brady (289-2-0) and company started slowly but scored 14 points in the second and third quarters, respectively. Wes Welker (11-110-0) topped all New England receivers as usual. For the Colts, Dan Orlovsky accumulated 353-2-1 on 30-of-37 passing, and Pierre Garcon (9-150-2) was his top target.
The Kansas City Chiefs Snap a Four-Game Losing Streak, Slipping Past the Chicago Bears 10-3; Chicago's Offense and Playoff Hopes Both Take Huge Hits -- Matt Forte (knee) Is Expected to Miss 2-to-6 Weeks
With Matt Forte (knee -- possible torn MCL) and Jay Cutler (thumb surgery on throwing hand) both sidelined, the Chicago Bears (7-5) offense is severely crippled, and Chicago's postseason hopes are in severe jeopardy. With backups Caleb Hanie (133-0-3) and Marion Barber (14-44-0 and 0-0-0 receiving) carrying the load against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Bears posted just three points. Chicago's usually reliable Robbie Gould missed a field goal. The Bears also had a touchdown pass on a gimmick play called back because of penalty. The Kansas City Chiefs' offense was just as inept offensively. The Chiefs scored their touchdown on a Hail Mary pass, which was batted to and caught by Dexter McCluster in the end zone.
THE BEST OF THE REST:
· The New Orleans Saints (9-3) pounded the sagging Detroit Lions (7-5) by a final score of 31-17. Drew Brees (342-3-0) tossed touchdown passes to three different receivers while Mark Ingram scored for the second straight week. For the Lions, Maurice Morris (12-28-0 and 5-47-1 receiving) caught Matthew Stafford's (408-1-1) only touchdown pass.
· The San Francisco 49ers won their first NFC West division title since 2002 by pounding the floundering St. Louis Rams (2-10) 26-0. Frank Gore (21-73-0) broke the San Francisco franchise rushing record. Steven Jackson (10-19-0) and A.J. Feely (156-0-1) did little against a stout 49ers defense that lost linebacker Patrick Willis to a hamstring injury.
· Chris Johnson exploded for the second week in a row, amassing 153-2-0 rushing during the Tennessee Titans' (7-5) 23-17 triumph over the Buffalo Bills (5-7). It was CJ's second straight outing with 150-plus rushing yards. The sagging Bills have dropped five straight games. T.J. Spiller (14-83-1) played solidly. He had a 41-yard touchdown run nullified by a penalty, and he lost a fumble through the end zone that resulted in a touchback.
· Making his first NFL regular-season start, rookie T.J. Yates (188-1-0) helped lift the Houston Texans (9-3) past the Atlanta Falcons (7-5) 17-10. Arian Foster amassed 152 total yards and a touchdown. Michael Turner (14-44-0) and Matt Ryan (267-1-2) both struggled against a tough Texans defense. The Falcons defense had one pick-six nullified by a penalty and a fumble return for a touchdown was overturned by replay.
· Shonn Greene scored a career-high three rushing touchdowns and Mark Sanchez threw for a score to help power the New York Jets (7-5) past the Washington Redskins (4-8) by a final of 34-19. For the Redskins, Roy Helu compiled 23-100-1 and 4-42-0 receiving while Fred Davis amassed 6-99-0.
· The upstart Miami Dolphins (4-8) notch their fourth win in five games, routing the Oakland Raiders (7-5) by a final of 34-14. The Dolphins jumped out to a 34-0 lead thanks to Reggie Bush (22-100-1) and some strong defensive play. The Miami defense limited Michael Bush...