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Steelers, 'Hawks, Rams upsets roil playoff picture

It was not a good week for top-shelf NFL teams angling for a playoff bye. Charlie Batch laughed at Baltimore's noted home-field advantage.

The Chicago Bears' vaunted defense couldn't stop Russell Wilson from driving the ball 97 yards on them in Chicago with the game on the line. The San Francisco 49ers couldn't put the Rams away -- again. For the fourth time this year, the 49ers failed to get a win in a game against heavy underdogs.

Earning a playoff bye is essentially like earning a playoff victory. On Sunday, three favorites stubbed their toes in their bids to watch the first week of the postseason from home.

They're real and spectacular

1. Pittsburgh's win in Baltimore was the most meaningful victory on Sunday. It's the type of win a team makes when it's ready to go on a big run. James Harrison is finally back to form. Troy Polamalu is back on the field. You would not want to host this team in the first round of the playoffs.

2. Houston just keeps taking care of business against bad competition. Following Baltimore's loss, Houston could essentially sew up the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a win at New England next Monday night.

3. J.J. Watt, Von Miller and Aldon Smith are all better Defensive Player of the Year candidates than any player from a year ago. They all had big days again on Sunday. I think it will come down to Watt or Miller.

4. New England's 16-play, 77-yard, 7+ minute drive to ice the Dolphins Sunday was the type of game-clinching march we haven't seen much from the Patriots this year. It was especially impressive on an afternoon when Miami's defense gave New England all sorts of problems. The Patriots are starting to win more with defense and running.



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5. We can't wait to see Denver head to Baltimore in two weeks because they are laying waste to every halfway decent team on their schedule. The three-way AFC battle for a bye between New England, Denver and Baltimore has a long way to go.

Rookies rule

Russell Wilson got the ball with three-and-half minutes to go, on the three-yard line, needing a touchdown drive against the Chicago Bears. He pulled it off with a lot of clutch throws, a fourth-down toss, and runs along the way. After the Bears improbably forced OT, Wilson pulled off another drive full of third-down conversions to win the game.

There have been games where the Seahwaks defense and running game carried Wilson. Those games aren't happening very often anymore. Wilson played outstanding on Sunday, and not just in the fourth quarter.

Andrew Luck, meanwhile, had a defining game on a day when he made a ton of mistakes. The Colts got the ball down 12 points with just over four minutes left and somehow won on a fourth-down play at the buzzer. This just doesn't happen. The Colts never believe they are out of a game, and Luck doesn't let his interceptions slow his aggression. These rookie quarterbacks are not slowing down as we hit December.

Don't panic

1. Chicago's home loss hurt, but it doesn't change the fact that the NFC North should come down to the Bears' home matchup against the Packers in Week 15.

2. Green Bay Packers fans are a worrying sort. So we could see some teeth-gnashing about a halftime deficit to the Vikings. It's not a great sign how well Aaron Rodgers has to play to carry his team. But we agree with Rodgers' take: That was a gut-check game for Green Bay coming off a big loss. They responded.

3. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to have to win some tough road games. They didn't pull it off in Denver. They will have to do it in Atlanta and/or New Orleans.

4. The Miami Dolphins seem to struggle to match up a good week by their defense with a good one by their offense. Overall, they are a 5-7 that has shown a lot of strides. Their defense gave New England all it could handle.

5. We're fully on board with Jim Harbaugh and Marc Sessler: There's no need to panic about Colin Kaepernick after one loss.

On the Chiefs

Hopefully there won't ever be similar circumstances surrounding a game to what we witnessed in Kansas City on Sunday. The Chiefs showed character in victory, but especially in how they handled their comments after the game. You can see why so many men swear by Romeo Crennel.

"I told (Romeo) after the game that I loved him," defensive lineman Shaun Smith said. "He is like my father. I could feel the pain and emotion that he is feeling and going through. He loves each one of us like we're his son; if something goes wrong, he is a father figure to us besides being a coach."

So you're saying there's a chance

1. The Buffalo Bills seem like they were put in the NFL to tease their fans into thinking they have a chance. A blowout win over the Jaguars gives the impression that progress is being made, but they are still on the very outskirts of the playoff race because of Sunday's wins by Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

2. It's hard to imagine a more dispiriting win for the New York Jets than Sunday's scenario. They bench Mark Sanchez -- who is guaranteed more than $8 million next year. They win by a point against a sixth-round rookie quarterback. They also watched the Bengals and Steelers win.

Marshall Plan

At some point, Chicago's ball distribution will catch up with them. Brandon Marshall caught 10 passes against Seattle. The rest of the team's receivers caught four combined. This is not a winning formula long-term.

Deserving of praise

1. The Cleveland Browns are 4-3 since starting 0-5. That won't save Pat Shurmur, but it's worth noting.

2. The Rams are 4-0-1 in the NFC West. They didn't lose to the 49ers this year. They still have a chance for a winning record this year. If Sam Bradford were just a little more confidence-inspiring, this would be a home run first year for Jeff Fisher.

Some panic is acceptable


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1. The Chad Henne excitement in Jacksonville lasted just in time for Tim Tebow to come to town with a chance to start.

2. The Lions show how thin a line there is between 4-8 and being a playoff team. They lost to three straight playoff teams (Packers, Texans, Colts) by a total of nine points.

They also show that it's not all just "bad luck" when it comes to losing close games. Detroit has mastered blowing late leads. It's like they go out of their way to make mistakes to give games away. They seemingly expect to lose.

3. Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder completed two passes over 15 yards against the Packers. He has 160 yards or less in five of his last nine games. He's topped the 55-percent completion percentage mark just once in the last six games. All this in 2012.

4. Ken Whisenhunt's decision to start Ryan Lindley -- and stick with him -- is like a gambler who keeps doubling down and just can't stop digging a bigger hole. He could wind up with a 12-game losing streak and a lost job.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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