The NFL playoff race is the ultimate reality show.
Reality television has exploded in popularity over the past decade, fueled largely by the drama that stems from the weekly dismissal of contestants. The excitement continues to build until a single winner emerges.
After Sunday's action, the Indianapolis Colts (8-4) seem destined to lock down one of the AFC's two wild-card spots. That leaves the final postseason berth up for grabs, to be scrapped over by the conference's last two contestants: the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals.
On Sunday, both the Steelers and Bengals engineered late scores to secure impressive road wins, improving their respective records to 7-5. Both teams relied on clutch quarterback play and stout defense to get there.
The Steelers snapped the Baltimore Ravens' 15-game home winning streak behind 37-year-old third-string quarterback Charlie Batch. This version of Batch looked nothing like the version who started Week 12's disappointing loss to the Cleveland Browns. This Batch was accurate, efficient and clutch, calmly steering the Steelers on a 61-yard drive that led to a 42-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.
Batch's performance helped the Steelers maintain their playoff position despite the absence of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the third straight week. Of course, the Steelers' defense also deserves its share of credit; the NFL's top-ranked unit limited the Ravens' offense to 288 total yards, producing three sacks and two timely turnovers.
The Steelers must temper their enthusiasm, however, because they are still deadlocked with their AFC North brethren, the Cincinnati Bengals. While the Steelers rode a wily veteran, the Bengals relied on the play of 25-year old quarterback Andy Dalton to notch a 20-13 win over the San Diego Chargers.
Dalton didn't produce eye-popping statistics (he completed 25 of 39 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown), but he utilized both his arm and legs to manufacture the necessary points for a Bengals win. His touchdown scamper with less than five minutes to play sealed the victory for Cincinnati.
Like Batch, Dalton benefited from the play of his defense. The Bengals held the Chargers to 297 total yards, producing four sacks and two key turnovers. Cincinnati's defense is currently the NFL's eighth-ranked unit overall, and is tied for the league lead with 39 sacks.
The race between these two teams will be fascinating to watch. The Steelers might seem to have the advantage on paper, as they play three of their four remaining games at home, while the Bengals play just two more contests on friendly turf.
Whatever happens, by the time Christmas rolls around, we should have a pretty good idea as to which team will snag the AFC's final playoff spot; the Steelers will host the Bengals in a potential winner-take-all contest on Dec. 23.
Luck, Wilson poised for playoff success
A few years ago, I did a study on successful NFL quarterbacks. I was looking for a common denominator among the league's top signal-callers, and I came away with some very interesting results. Size, arm-strength, athleticism and personality all varied, but there was one trait that each of the NFL's top passers shared: poise.
Poise is hard to explain but easy to spot, and it was on display in two young quarterbacks on Sunday. Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks both handled high-pressure situations (against the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, respectively) with incredible calm, confidence and poise. There wasn't any panic in their play and they both took their game to another level when their teams' fates were on the line.
The great quarterbacks always seem to embrace the challenge of performing in clutch situations. They find a way to slow the game down, control their emotions and make great decisions. That's exactly what Luck and Wilson have done throughout the 2012 season, and it should result in postseason berths for both the Colts and Seahawks.
Three startling statistics
1) The Arizona Cardinals were 0-15 on third-down conversions Sunday, and have converted just six of 44 third-down opportunities over the past four games. The Cardinals' ineptitude isn't limited to third downs, either; they produced just 137 yards of total offense against the New York Jets.
3) Carson Palmer completed 34 passes for 351 yards but lost, while Ryan Fitzpatrick completed nine passes for 112 yards but won. Fitzpatrick benefitted from the Buffalo Bills' strong defense and rushing attack against the Jacksonville Jaguars, while Palmer failed to receive the same type of support against the Cleveland Browns from his Oakland Raiders teammates.
Rookie class a bright spot for Eagles
Very little has gone right for the Philadelphia Eagles during the 2012 campaign. On Sunday night, the Eagles dropped their eighth straight game after getting off to a 3-1 start. While their record is ugly, there has been one positive development for Philadelphia: This year's rookie class is shaping up to be one of the best in the team's recent history.
Fletcher Cox, DT, first-round pick: Cox has started six games, flashing excellent quickness and playmaking potential while recording 29 tackles and three sacks this season.
Mychal Kendricks, LB, second-round pick: Kendricks has started 11 of the Eagles' 12 games; his speed and explosiveness are easy to spot on game tape.
Nick Foles, QB, third-round pick: The young signal-caller has started the last three games for Philly, enjoying his best showing during Sunday night's contest. He threw for 251 yards and a score while avoiding any interceptions. His ability to buy time and create plays on the move has been a pleasant surprise.
Brandon Boykin, CB, fourth-round pick: Boykin has made solid contributions as both a nickel coverage player and kickoff returner.
Dennis Kelly, OL, fifth-round pick: Drafted as a developmental project, Kelly has already started six games this season at two different positions.
Bryce Brown, RB, seventh-round pick: Brown has proven to be the Eagles' best value selection. He's started the past two games, rushing for a combined 347 yards and four touchdowns. He also coughed up three devastating fumbles over that span, but Brown's combination of speed and power has to be encouraging to the Eagles' front office.
Damaris Johnson, WR, rookie free agent: Johnson has shown glimpses of potential as both a receiver and returner. On Sunday, he returned a punt 98 yards for a touchdown.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.