A topsy-turvy thriller at Gillette has the New England Patriots sitting pretty in the AFC playoff race.
Sunday night's epic 34-31 overtime victory against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos vaulted New England to 8-3 on the year and handed the Patriots sole possession of the conference's second seed -- and that's just the start.
The Patriots own a realistic shot at No. 1, with Denver set to travel to rowdy Arrowhead next Sunday for a rematch with the Kansas City Chiefs. Both AFC West powers dropped to 9-2 on the year, just one game up on New England with plenty of football left to played.
The AFC feels entirely up for grabs, and all the early-season chatter about the Patriots fading from power has given way to the truth: They look like a team just getting started.
Here's what else we learned during 12 games played on the Sunday of Week 12:
1. Bill Belichick's
gutsy call to defer the ball in overtime ultimately worked out, but the Patriots would have caught heat if Manning drove Denver down into the wind for a touchdown. Maybe Bill reads Around The League, because we noted this week that, in the 32 overtime games played under the new rules, just five have ended on the first possession with a touchdown.
2. This looked like Von Miller's night, as the Broncos edge rusher recovered a fumble and took it 60 yards for the game's first touchdown before strip-sacking Tom Brady on the following series. Miller finished with two takedowns, two tackles for losses, three quarterback hits and the score, but Denver's defense -- despite six Patriots fumbles (three of them lost) -- faded down the stretch.
3. Brady has endured an up-and-down campaign, but played an outstanding football game last week against the Panthers and shifted into assassin mode against Denver, throwing for 344 yards and three scores in the biggest comeback of his career. The unlikely hero of the game was Julian Edelman, who led all team targets with nine catches for 110 and a pair of touchdowns. As our friend Drew Magary opined: "Throw it deep to Edeltron."
1. We might not see the vaunted Chiefs defense again after it lost defensive ends Justin Houston (elbow) and Tamba Hali (ankle) to potentially serious injuries. Kansas City's pass rush was already struggling the last three games. After Houston left Sunday, the Chiefs gave up 38 points in the last 31 minutes.
2. Alex Smith deserves a ton of credit for putting the Chiefs in position to win. Kansas City repeatedly converted third-and-long plays throughout the game. He put the Chiefs in the lead with a touchdown with 1:28 remaining. San Diego's awful secondary and pass rush will be tough for the Chargers to overcome.
3. Chargers tight end Ladarius Green has been a revelation over the last month. He's probably the fastest guy on the team. He took a 60-yard score to the house in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, receiver Keenan Allen looks like a No. 1 receiver; he's making a run for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
1. Zac Stacy racked up chunks of yards against a punchless Bears defense. Stacy left the game in the second half and was being evaluated for a concussion after racking up 12 carries for 87 yards and one touchdown. Fellow rookie Benny Cunningham picked up where Stacy left off. He ended with 109 yards and a TD on just 18 carries. In total, the Rams gained 258 yards on the ground. The Bears' defense is just not good right now.
1. Bucs quarterback Mike Glennon played a very good, mistake-free game in leading Tampa Bay. The rookie signal-caller threw two touchdown passes -- setting a rookie record with eight consecutive games with a TD to start a career. Glennon maneuvered the pocket well throughout the day and threw darts in the first half. He struggled a bit in the second half, but the quarterback connected with Tiquan Underwood on an 85-yard touchdown that wound up being the difference in the game.
2. Matthew Stafford, on the other hand, was more erratic than elite, missing a multitude of throws. As is usually the case with the enigmatic quarterback, most of the inaccurate passes were high.
3. Darrelle Revis left the game after suffering a groin injury at the end of the first half. He did not return. Tampa Bay's defense didn't need its big-money cornerback in order to rack up five turnovers against the Lions' offense.
1. The Texans have lost a franchise record nine consecutive games. Calling Sunday's loss the lowest of low points in franchise history, the Houston Chronicle's John McClain suggested coach Gary Kubiak could be fired as soon as Monday.
2. If this is Case Keenum's audition for the 2014 starting job, he's failing it. Houston hasn't scored a touchdown in back-to-back games, as Keenum has clearly regressed. Kubiak said after the game that he gave no thought to pulling Keenum for Matt Schaub. The next Texans coach might just pick his own quarterback with what is shaping up as the No. 1 overall selection in the draft.
3. The Jaguars have scored a touchdown on the opening drive of the past three games, a credit to offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. This has been a different team since the Week 9 bye, playing three competitive games after losing every one of their first eight games by at least 10 points.
1. We wrote earlier this month that Ryan Fitzpatrick could keep the Titans in the playoff hunt with his ability to get hot. That's exactly what he's doing right now, and it's kept Tennessee relevant. Fitzpatrick was in complete control during Tennessee's game-winning march, completing eight of 10 passes for 67 yards and the scoring throw to Kendall Wright. This is the Fitzmagic the Bills thought they were paying for.
2. Matt McGloin did more than enough to keep himself ahead of Terrelle Pryor on the depth chart. Raiders coach Dennis Allen said after the game that the rookie "earned another start" after completing 19 of 32 passes for 260 yards with one touchdown and an interception. McGloin's 27-yard touchdown pass to Marcel Reece with 6:10 to play was a thing of beauty.
3. Kenny Britt has drifted into the deep abyss, but the cupboard remains full for the Titans at wide receiver. Both Justin Hunter and Kendall Wright went over 100 yards on the day. Hunter was particularly impressive, putting the clown suit on Brandian Ross and Phillip Adams during his 54-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
1. Think the Packers are happy they signed Flynn now? The embattled quarterback might have saved Green Bay's season in leading three scoring drives in the fourth quarter and overtime. One pretty TD scramble aside, Scott Tolzien was not getting it done and likely saw his opportunity go by the boards. Expect Flynn to be under center on Thanksgiving if Aaron Rodgers isn't ready to return.
2. Clay Matthews is all the way back for the Packers. The linebacker -- in his third game since his return from a broken thumb -- finished with two sacks, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hits. The Packers' defense has plenty of issues, but Matthews isn't one of them.
3. Eddie Lacy strengthened his Offensive Rookie Of The Year resume with 158 total yards and one touchdown. He earned every one of those yards, too, running like a maniac all game. It might explain why he went to the locker room during overtime.
1. Jets coach Rex Ryan has a tough decision about Smith this week. The young signal-caller's confidence looks shot, and the Jets' play-calling is a glaring indicator the coaching staff has lost faith. Smith has completed just 25 passes over the last three games and has a league-leading 23 turnovers. Ryan wouldn't say after the game if Smith was his starter next week against the Miami Dolphins. Matt Simms is in play.
2. A new uniform can't change one unconquerable truth for safety Ed Reed: He can't move anymore. Flacco's long touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones was tailor-made for a Reed pick during his salad days in Baltimore. The Reed of today wasn't quick enough to adjust, allowing the back-breaking score. If Reed doesn't help solve the Jets' deep ball woes, he doesn't have much use.
3. So much for Ray Rice's 131-yard breakout against the Chicago Bears ending his season-long funk. Rice was back in more familiar territory against an imposing Jets front, finishing with 30 yards on 16 carries. Bernard Pierce wasn't much better.
1. Cam Newton had his worst performance of the Panthers' seven-game winning streak. He was sluggish for the majority of the first half after taking a hit to the mouth from Cameron Wake early in the game. To Newton's credit, he bounced back with a stronger second half, leading touchdown drives of 12 and 14 plays. He's now winning the close games that he lost in his first two seasons. A great defense will grant that opportunity for a quarterback.
2. The Dolphins have the most unreliable ground attack in the NFL. Running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas combined for 16 yards on 13 carries, the fourth time in 11 games that the duo has been held under 25 yards. It doesn't help that the offensive line is down three starters since the beginning of the season.
3. Charles Johnson's absence was felt on the Panthers' defensive line. Although Carolina's three sacks and eight quarterback hits look respectable, Ryan Tannehill had too much time in the pocket in taking a 16-6 first-half lead. This is the best defense in the NFL when Johnson is in the lineup. Over the past six quarters, it's been too easy to move the ball without their premier pass rusher on the field.
1. This game encapsulated the Giants' season. Mental errors, sloppy mistakes and lack of efficiency in the red zone defined the first half. The G-Men made a valiant comeback, but their defense still couldn't make the big plays with the game on the line. They left no margin for error after starting 0-6. Their season is all but done now.
2. Tony Romo has put together two game-winning drives in Dallas' last three games. Hopefully we can put the fourth-quarter conversation to rest for a little while. Dez Bryant earned his money with a pair of huge third-down grabs to start the drive. It's telling that Bryant, not Jason Witten, is the key guy at the end of games now.
3. DeMarco Murray (126 yards from scrimmage) goes out of bounds way too much. Still, his presence makes such a huge difference for the Cowboys' offense. The return of Jason Hatcher changed the defense too, although the Dallas rush defense was embarrassed by Brandon Jacobs and Andre Brown.
1. Arizona sits firmly entrenched in the NFC playoff picture. Four convincing quarters against the Colts revealed a Cardinals squad jelling on both sides of the ball. Arizona's defense is top-five material and the team's long-assumed weakness -- quarterback Carson Palmer -- is playing his best football in half a decade.
2. The Colts have been outscored 93-9 in the first half over their past four games and trailed Arizona 27-3 at the midway point. Chalk that up to a Pep Hamilton-led offense that aims to pound teams on the ground but lacks the horses to pull it off. Trent Richardson remains an enigma, totaling 15 yards off seven totes for a measly 2.1 per yards carry. Last week's star, Donald Brown, was an apparition.
3. The Cardinals had issues of their own running the ball seven days ago, with Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington squeezing out just 17 yards against the Jaguars. The duo returned to form against Indy, with Arizona pounding away for 103 yards by halftime. It's hard to imagine Mendenhall as part of the Cardinals' plan next season, but he ran with purpose Sunday against a Colts defense that's given up 100-plus yards in nine of 11 tilts and more than 140 yards five times in 2013.
1. Our gang of Around The League scribes has no choice but to "stick a fork" in the Browns after Sunday. A victory at home would have kept Cleveland (4-7) alive for the AFC's sixth playoff seed, but, instead, it's Ben Roethlisberger and frisky Pittsburgh (5-6) inching closer to January football. With the Browns out of the way, Pittsburgh now prepares for a Turkey Night showdown with the Baltimore Ravens. The winner moves to 6-6 and sits in fine position to make a run at the No. 6 seed.
2. Cleveland quarterback Jason Campbell generated just three points over two-plus quarters before Steelers cornerback William Gay knocked him out of the game with a shot to the head that arguably should have been flagged. In came the unkillable Brandon Weeden, who, like clockwork, coughed up an ugly fumble before dialing up a soul-crushing pick six. Don't expect to see either quarterback back in C-Town in 2014.
3. Coming off back-to-back 100-yard receiving games, Steelers wideout Antonio Brown found himself pitted Sunday against ascendant Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden. After shutting down A.J. Green last week, Haden held Brown in check until just before halftime, when Big Ben found the pass-catcher on a 41-yard scoring strike to give Pittsburgh a 10-3 lead. Haden has produced a Pro Bowl-level season, but Brown -- who came into the game leading the NFL in receptions -- won the battle Sunday, finishing with six catches for 92 yards and one score.