The Denver Broncos entered the day facing questions about their quarterback's ability to win in the elements.
The New England Patriots' diminishing roster took a severe blow with Rob Gronkowski's knee injury. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton just had his first decent game since Halloween. The Indianapolis Colts are the only team with a winning record and a negative point differential. The Kansas City Chiefs won Sunday for the first time in over a month.
Meanwhile, the Broncos have discovered yet another offensive weapon in rookie running back Montee Ball. Manning silenced his critics with one of the best cold-weather performances of the past two decades.
If he wins two playoff games in Denver and knocks off the NFC champion in the first cold-weather Super Bowl, Manning no longer will have critics and skeptics to use as motivation.
Here's what else we learned in Week 14:
1. The GenoCoaster is back on the rails and operational. Jets quarterback Geno Smith had his best game in two months, throwing one touchdown pass and running for another score. His 25-yard scoring hookup with Jeremy Kerley was the Jets' first touchdown in nine quarters and Smith's first TD pass since Week 7. Smith was far from perfect; he missed an open Kellen Winslow in the end zone on New York's first possession and later threw a badly telegraphed interception, but Sunday counts as substantial progress. Coach Rex Ryan is unlikely to be asked about Matt Simms this week.
2. Raiders coach Dennis Allen hinted last week that he planned to get quarterback Terrelle Pryor in the game plan. He did just that on the Raiders' third possession. Pryor made some plays in leading Oakland to three points before Matt McGloin re-entered the game. McGloin's lights-out play in the second half should be enough to keep him on the field. We'll see if common sense comes into play for the Raiders.
3. Safety Ed Reed made his first impact play in four weeks with the Jets, picking off a Matt McGloin pass deep in Raiders territory to set up a field goal by Nick Folk. Reed -- who recently defended his play -- also took a bad angle on wide receiver Rod Streater's 48-yard touchdown reception, leading to a collision with cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
1. The Broncos' 39 first downs fell one short of the record set by the Saints a month ago. Denver needs to total just 75 points over the final three games to break the 2007 Patriots' single-season NFL record of 589 points. In addition to quieting concerns about his arm in cold weather, Peyton Manning also deep-sixed any talk of competition for his fifth MVP award. The Broncos became the first team in NFL history to have four players with 10-plus touchdowns. If wide receiver Eric Decker scores twice in the final three weeks, Denver will have five players in double figures. Manning is on pace for a ridiculous 55 touchdown passes and 5,562 yards. He's made some of his prettiest throws of the season over the past two games.
2. Rookie running back Montee Ball has turned the Broncos backfield into a committee attack, outrushing Knowshon Moreno 194-96 over the past two weeks. The AFC's richest roster is getting richer for the stretch run while its competition is hemorrhaging key players.
3. The Broncos ran 91 plays, compared to 48 for the Titans' offense. That partially explains the low output for Tennessee wide receiver Kendall Wright, who was targeted on just three of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's 24 pass attempts.
1. The Dolphins' 34 points were their second-most since Joe Philbin took over as coach. They had gone 28 consecutive fourth-quarter possessions without a touchdown prior to tight end Charles Clay's game-winning reception from Ryan Tannehill. Regarding the race with Baltimore for the AFC's sixth seed, the Ravens hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, thanks to a 26-23 victory at Miami in Week 5. The Dolphins do have a slight schedule advantage with upcoming games against the Patriots, Bills and Jets; whereas the Ravens face the Lions, Patriots and Bengals.
2. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's passer rating was over 100 for the third time in the past four games. He and wide receiver Antonio Brown are not the reason the Steelers are losing. Brown's 90 receptions are second only to Houston Texans pass-catcher Andre Johnson's 95. Brown is also in the top five in receiving yards with 1,240.
3. Look for Pittsburgh to rebuild on defense after surrendering 34 points in the snow -- to a team from Florida. Veterans Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel all could be on the chopping block in the offseason.
1. The 49ers' offense has steadily improved in recent weeks. They scored on four straight first-half possessions when they consistently moved the ball. With the game on the line, they drove 76 yards in 11 plays before kicking a game-winning field goal. Taking six minutes off the clock in that spot is enormous. They beat Seattle at Seattle's game.
2. The Seahawks' defense is outstanding but occasionally gives up big rushing plays. Running back Frank Gore's 51-yard scamper during the final drive was a killer. This is the fourth game this season in which Seattle gave up at least 150 rushing yards, including three of the last six games.
3. This is why Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is only an MVP candidate if you ignore Peyton Manning. Wilson threw the ball just 25 times; Seattle had six drives of 15 yards or less, with four drives not gaining a yard. Wilson is outstanding, but the passing attack is only a part of why Seattle is great.
1. Give quarterback Andy Dalton and the Bengals' offense a ton of credit. They were aggressive throwing intermediate and deep passes throughout the game. Dalton was sharp on third downs. The Colts threatened to come back in the game multiple times in the second half, but the Bengals repeatedly responded with sustained drives and points.
2. The biggest difference this season with the Bengals' offense: Running back Giovani Bernard. He racked up 148 yards from scrimmage, with big plays in the running game and as a receiver. We love that Bernard is so comfortable running between the tackles. Cincinnati's offensive line pushed the Colts around.
3. The Colts have found something in wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers. He is very strong at the point of attack and made a great play after the catch on a 69-yard touchdown. He finished with 107 yards and two scores.
1. Quarterback Matt Flynn displayed the good and the bad in the Packers' win. When he makes quick decisions and gets the ball out quickly, he can be effective. However, too often he hops around in the pocket and isn't decisive. He still struggles with deep passes, but he completed enough throws to wide receiver Jordy Nelson to get the Packers the win. The calls for signal-caller Aaron Rodgers' return will be loud in Green Bay this week with the NFC North lead within sight.
2. Neither of these defenses are very good. The Packers held the Falcons scoreless in the second half, but they weren't exactly stalwarts. Linebacker Clay Matthews was invisible for most of the game. The Packers didn't take advantage of a weak Falcons offensive line. The Falcons' defense was predictably soft. The unit's five sacks had more to do with Flynn holding the ball too long than a great pass rush.
1. Eagles running back LeSean McCoy was spectacular on touchdown runs of 40 and 57 yards. Once past the line of scrimmage, he made the Lions' secondary look foolish. Shady was the kid at the park who is so much better than everyone else; you just give him the ball, stand back and watch him clown the other kids. He finished with a franchise-record 217 rushing yards.
2. The Lions' run defense -- one of the NFL's best entering the week -- was embarrassed. A dominant front four couldn't figure out the Eagles' blocking scheme and were consistently pushed out of the play by pulling blockers.
3. Philadelphia's Chip Kelly schooled Detroit's Jim Schwartz on the sideline. One coach made adjustments at halftime and blew the game open. The other decided he was smart to take the opening kickoff in a blizzard after winning the coin toss. If the Lions fall out of the playoffs, Schwartz needs to lose his job (they currently sit just a half-game up in the division).
1. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was carted off the field with what is believed to be a torn ACL, a source who's spoken to the tight end told NFL Media's Albert Breer. An obviously devastating blow for the Patriots, who came into the game 22nd in scoring without Gronk, but second with him in the lineup.
2. Cleveland's defense came to play. The Browns led 6-0 at half, holding quarterback Tom Brady to 95 passing yards and an interception -- but it didn't last. Brady -- who threw for 418 yards -- has been a surgeon with the game on the line over the past month. He's playing as well as any quarterback in the NFL down the stretch, especially with his back against the wall.
3. Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib got the best Josh Gordon early, but the Browns wide receiver won the day. Gordon proved again that he can't be suppressed over four quarters, beating Talib in coverage and outrunning him for an 80-yard score that put Cleveland up 19-3 in the third quarter. Gordon's 774 receiving yards over his past four starts shattered an NFL record for yardage over a four-game span.
1. Mike Shanahan might be cleaning out his office for good this time. The Redskins coach's squad was a disaster in every facet of the game. Shanahan said he only pulled quarterback Robert Griffin III for Kirk Cousins in the fourth quarter because the game was out of reach. Interestingly, the coach would not commit to Griffin as the Week 15 starter. By Monday morning, it might not be Shanahan's call to make.
2. CBS broadcaster Solomon Wilcots called the Redskins' special teams the poorest display he's ever seen. They went on to allow a kickoff return for a touchdown after that statement. Special teams coordinator Keith Burns' unit has been an unmitigated disaster all season. Tight end Niles Paul suggested earlier in the season that players aren't buying in to Burns' coaching.
3. The St. Louis Rams are watching the Redskins' dumpster fire with amusement. As part of the RGIII trade, the Rams have Washington's first-round draft pick. If things break their way over the final three weeks, it could be the No. 1 overall selection.
1. Mother Nature did her best to make this one a snoozer, but no dice. The Vikings and Ravens combined for 35 points over the final 2:07 minutes of play in a wild affair that wasn't over until Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco's 9-yard scoring strike to rookie wide receiver Marlon Brown sealed the win for Baltimore. The victory keeps the Ravens (7-6) very much alive for the AFC's sixth playoff seed.
2. Weather was a major factor all afternoon in a game that saw four lead changes inside the two-minute warning. This one looked to be over after running back Toby Gerhart's 41-yard touchdown run gave the Vikings the lead with 1:45 to go. It wasn't. It looked over after Ravens return man Jacoby Jones took the subsequent kickoff 77 yards to the house with 1:27 on the clock. It wasn't. It definitely looked over after wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson -- with 1:01 left -- breezed in for a 79-yard Vikings score. It wasn't. The Ravens never gave up.
3. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson left the game with what NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport labeled a right mid-foot sprain. In his absence, Gerhart -- despite being victimized by a questionable call on a fumble -- showed well, rambling for 89 yards on the day at 5.9 yards per carry.
1. It's not a good sign for the Bills when they are blown out in a game in which the defense holds Mike Glennon to 3.6 yards per attempt and picks him off twice. Both rookie quarterbacks struggled in this game, but Bills quarterback EJ Manuel's mistakes stuck out more.
2. Manuel doesn't make quick decisions and he's not accurate. He threw four interceptions, but the most glaring thing is how many times Manuel invited pressure. He holds on to the ball too long.
3. When the Bucs' defense gets rolling, few groups look more dominant. Gerald McCoy, Darrelle Revis, Lavonte David and Mark Barron all had huge games. Tampa racked up 13 quarterback hits and seven sacks. This game was over quickly. The Bills are getting worse as the season wears on, while the Bucs have won four of five games.
1. Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen strengthened his case to be the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year. Allen had two first-half touchdown receptions and is headed for a 1,000-yard season. His first score was an athletic feat, as he kept his feet in bounds before making a diving tap of the pylon for six. Allen is a player.
2. We continue to be impressed by the hard-running style of San Diego's Ryan Mathews. The fourth-year running back set a career high with 29 carries, good for 103 yards and one touchdown. Mathews and Danny Woodhead form one of the most undersized (and underrated) backfields in football.
3. Remember when we all thought Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was past his prime? That was an incorrect inference. Rivers was brilliant again Sunday, shredding the Giants' secondary and looking like the best quarterback on the field. New York quarterback Eli Manning's two rings always will give him the upper hand in the argument of which team won the 2004 NFL Draft, but Rivers isn't done yet. Far from it.
1. Arizona's win was tempered by some terrible news out of the secondary. Rookie Tyrann Mathieu likely is done for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee. Mathieu had been playing at a Pro Bowl level as the team's starting free safety. His presence will be deeply missed.
2. A number of pass rush-needy teams passed on John Abraham before he finally landed with the Cardinals. Think those teams are having non-buyer's remorse? Abraham had three more sacks Sunday, including one for a safety. He has 11 sacks in the past seven games and has given Arizona more than it could have ever asked for.
3. What's better than watching Larry Fitzgerald do his thing for four quarters? No one plays the wide receiver position with more precision and professionalism than the 10-year pro. Fitz was particularly proficient on Sunday, finishing with 12 catches on 12 targets. Tremendous.
2. The difference between the two offenses was stark. Five different Saints generated plays of at least 20 yards, while the Panthers didn't have a single big play. Quarterback Cam Newton directs the most methodical, time-consuming offense in the league, which is a problem when they fall behind in games.
3. Saints wide receivers entered the game catching just 33 percent of Brees' passes, the lowest figure in the league. Wide receiver Marques Colston proved he can still bust zones, though, producing his second 100-yard performance in the last 23 games. Brees will have to rely more on Colston and fellow pass-catcher Lance Moore if this team is going to make a Super Bowl run.