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What we learned: 43 takeaways from Week 15

  • By Gregg Rosenthal, Dan Hanzus, Marc Sessler, Kevin Patra and Chris Wesseling
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Does any team want home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs?

With the top seed there for the taking following the Broncos' Thursday night loss to the Chargers, the Patriots came up short in the closing seconds at Miami. The Bengals subsequently fumbled away their chance to steal the No. 2 seed from New England by falling to a more physical Steelers squad.

Worse yet, Cincinnati will see the AFC North crown slip away if the Ravens win their final three games.

While the Bengals suddenly are fighting for their postseason livelihood, the Chiefs have gone schizophrenic. A team so reliant on defense in the first half of the season has been involved in four consecutive shootouts, with the offense doing the heavy lifting.

Outside of Denver, is there a single AFC powerhouse that inspires confidence? Teams will continue to ebb and flow through January. As we enter Week 16, though, the Broncos are clearly the class of the conference.

Here's what else we learned in Sunday's games:

Green Bay Packers 37, Dallas Cowboys 36

1. It's hard to overstate how improbable Green Bay's comeback was after spotting the Cowboys a 26-3 halftime lead. The Packers scored touchdowns on all five of their second-half possessions before kneeling the ball at the end of the game. A reminder: Matt Flynn remains their quarterback. Dallas' defensive performance was even worse than when they almost gave up a 50-burger Monday night against Chicago.

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the Green Bay Packers' 37-36 win over the Dallas Cowboys from Week 15 on Wednesday, Dec. 18 at 9 p.m. ET.

» NFL Network schedule

2. Everyone will kill Romo and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett for their decisions to throw the ball so much late in the game, leading to two Romo interceptions. But Romo had two chances to end the game and he missed throws. If he completes a deep pass to an open Dez Bryant on the second-to-last drive, the Cowboys win the game. Instead, he underthrew Bryant.

On Romo's first interception, Miles Austin was open for a huge gain. Romo was pressured and made a bad throw. He had a run-pass option and chose to pass. This was more about execution than coaching.

3. This feels like the end for the Cowboys, but it's not at all. All they have to do is beat Washington next week to set up a potential win-and-in situation against Philadelphia in Week 17. The Eagles' loss in Minnesota on Sunday saved Dallas. Green Bay, meanwhile, is very much alive in the NFC North race at 7-6-1. Aaron Rodgers' potential return next week looms large.

Pittsburgh Steelers 30, Cincinnati Bengals 20

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1. Marvin Lewis diagnosed the Bengals' major issue in his postgame presser, explaining "we just didn't make any plays." Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has to bear a significant portion of the responsibility for that. For the entire season, he's shown a disturbing proclivity to save talented rookies Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert for later in the game. This offense moves the ball far more effectively when Bernard is on the field. Gruden is going to have to increase his reliance on Bernard and Eifert going forward.

2. The Bengals are hurting for warm bodies in the secondary. Top cornerback Leon Hall is out for the year. Starting cornerback Terence Newman is sidelined with a sprained MCL. Fill-in starter Dre Kirkpatrick was limping late in the game after getting picked on by Ben Roethlisberger.

3. Antonio Brown has emerged as the second-best player on the Steelers roster and one of the most valuable wide receivers in the league. A model of consistency, Brown hasn't had a single game with fewer than five receptions this season. He's on pace for 109 receptions, a franchise-record 1,419 receiving yards and 10 total touchdowns. The front office made the correct call in extending Brown while letting Mike Wallace walk.

Miami Dolphins 24, New England Patriots 20

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the Miami Dolphins' 24-20 win over the New England Patriots from Week 15 on Tuesday, Dec. 17 at 3:30 p.m. ET.

» NFL Network schedule

1. Ryan Tannehill makes throws few quarterbacks can make. The Dolphins showed surprising aggression late in the first half to put up a crucial score before halftime. And Tannehill continued to throw some beauties on the team's game-winning touchdown drive. The flow of this game required Tannehill and the Dolphins offense to carry the team. He came through. It was a big step in his development.

2. Life without Rob Gronkowski wasn't easy. The Patriots offense racked up 453 yards, but they now rely on eight-yard throws to Julian Edelman and five-yard runs by LeGarrette Blount. Too many of New England's long drives stalled in the red zone. They couldn't manufacture big plays, especially with rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins out.

3. The Patriots lost offensive tackle Nate Solder to a head injury for the second straight week. He could be out for some time, which would be a huge loss.

Minnesota Vikings 48, Philadelphia Eagles 30

1. The Eagles' secondary had shown marked improvement over the past two months after getting torched early in the season. Sunday's performance suggests that improvement was mostly the direct result of a favorable schedule against underwhelming passing attacks. Even before cornerback Brandon Boykin (head) and safety Kurt Coleman (hamstring) were forced out, Cassel was having his way with defensive backs who didn't have to worry about stacking the box to stop Adrian Peterson.

2. Nick Foles' ball placement was off the mark early. He padded his stats in the second half, as the Vikings went into prevent mode. In addition to tossing an interception for the second consecutive game, Foles' illegal peel-back block cost DeSean Jackson an 18-yard touchdown on an end-around. Foles still managed a passer rating over 100.0 for the fifth time in his last six games. This offense remains one of the league's most effective.

3. Coach Chip Kelly can expect criticism for his failed fourth-and-inches attempt on his own 24-yard line late in the third quarter. It was a defensible move, though. The Eagles were down by 15 points and it was a high-percentage play.

San Francisco 49ers 33, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 14

1. With all due respect to Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis is playing tight end at a higher level than anyone in the game right now. His 52-yard touchdown catch was a thing of beauty. Humans that big aren't supposed to move that well.

2. Greg Schiano could have saved his job with a win on Sunday. Instead, Tampa Bay fell to 4-10 with road matchups at St. Louis and New Orleans to close out the season. Schiano's chances of survival might come down to winning one of those games ... or perhaps both.

3. Another promising week for Michael Crabtree, who showed impressive quickness in shaking free for a 4-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter. He later got behind the defense on a deep route, though he was overthrown by Colin Kaepernick. Crabtree has proved Achilles surgery won't stop him from being a factor down the stretch.

Indianapolis Colts 25, Houston Texans 3

1. Andrew Luck got T.Y. Hilton involved early and often in the short passing game. After just catching two passes last week, Hilton had eight for 78 yards (including five in the first quarter). Luck was clearly the best offensive player on the field Sunday, making just about any play he desired -- with his arm or legs.

2. In his three-game audition to close out the season, Case Keenum failed miserably. He locked in on receivers leading to two picks, looked nervous in the pocket, wasn't accurate and misread several Indy blitzes. He didn't look like an apt backup, let alone a future starter on Sunday.

3. Robert Mathis continues to make plays. His strip-sack safety of Keenum looked an awful lot like the one he put on Peyton Manning this season. It also gave him the Colts' single-season (16.5) and team record (108) for sacks.

Chicago Bears 38, Cleveland Browns 31

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the Chicago Bears' 38-31 win over the Cleveland Browns from Week 15 on Tuesday, Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. ET.

» NFL Network schedule

1. The Bears' Jay Cutler is who we thought he was. The quarterback looked healthy and mobile. He was classic Bad Cutler in the first half. He forced throws where he shouldn't and threw high when he couldn't. His two interceptions kept this game closer when it should have been lopsided in favor of Chicago. When he was on target, the Browns' defense couldn't handle the Bears' passing attack.

2. Jason Campbell looked like he should be playing quarterback in the Mid-American Conference. His two interceptions where terrible and his check downs obnoxious. There were times it looked like he was skipping stones to Josh Gordon. The Browns' receiver should have had at least double the 67 receiving yards he produced, if Campbell could have put the ball on him.

3. We could put it in here every week: You can't give Matt Forte enough credit. Repeat: You can't give Matt Forte enough credit.

Atlanta Falcons 27, Washington Redskins 26

1. It's hard to kill Shanahan for going for the two-point conversion to win the game. They were on the road, and no one wants overtime between two 3-10 teams. Washington was moving the ball and the Falcons' defense was gassed. The play just didn't work.

2. Cousins showed why Mike Shanahan wanted to get him into the lineup. Cousins made a number of terrific throws. Washington attempted and completed more vertical plays from the pocket than they did with Robert Griffin; Cousins finished with 381 passing yards. Then again, Griffin would have found success against this ragged Falcons defense too. Cousins' decision-making and accuracy crumbled for most of the second half.

3. The Redskins almost won despite seven turnovers. Seven! Their special teams unit is the possibly the worst special teams unit in NFL history. Washington lost five fumbles. Cousins played well overall, but his three turnovers were killers.

Seattle Seahawks 23, New York Giants 0

1. Richard Sherman continues to build his case in a wide-open Defensive Player of the Year race. The All-Pro cornerback had two first-half interceptions, giving him six on the year and a share of the league lead. With J.J. Watt trapped on the worst team in football and Sherman playing at his typically elite level, a strong case can be made on the cornerback's behalf.

2. Eli Manning is living proof of how much rope Super Bowl success can give you. The Giants quarterback has two rings, the only explanation why he's gotten a free pass in what's been a dreadful season. Manning threw five interceptions on Sunday and now leads the league with 25 picks. Funny how some people want to push coach Tom Coughlin out the door while Manning retains his sacred cow status.

3. Marshawn Lynch is so very powerful. The Seahawks running back's 2-yard touchdown run in the second quarter showed off the remarkable strength he possesses in both his hands and legs. Lynch was hit four times on the play and still broke the plane. If only there were a name for this ... ah yes. Beast Mode.

Carolina Panthers 30, New York Jets 20

1. The Panthers have to be encouraged by the play of DeAngelo Williams, who has looked better the past two weeks than he has since September. On his 72-yard screen-pass touchdown, Williams blew past linebacker David Harris, who had the angle on him. Williams' 168 yards from scrimmage were 51 more than any game this season.

2. Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn had the game of his life. In addition to setting the franchise record with his fifth career pick-six, Munnerlyn recorded a career-high two sacks and his pressure led to another sack for Luke Kuechly. He's been the best player in a secondary that has exceeded expectations for the majority of the season.

3. The Jets unveiled rookie defensive end Sheldon Richardson as a goal-line weapon, giving him the ball on back-to-back carries, culminating in a 1-yard touchdown. That sequence called to mind former NFL defensive tackle (and Bears icon) William "The Refrigerator" Perry.

Arizona Cardinals 37, Tennessee Titans 34

1. This will be the craziest comeback that no one will know about, and the craziest comeback that didn't make a difference. Tennessee was down 17 points with 3:30 left and forced overtime. How does that happen? Touchdown, onside kick recovery, field goal, onside kick recovery, touchdown. Unfortunately Fitzmagic ran out in overtime after a Ryan Fitzpatrick interception.

2. Carson Palmer has been throwing the ball very well for the entire second half of the season, other than the loss to Philadelphia. Some of his throws in this game had to be pinpoint, and he pulled it off.

3. The Cardinals are in the wrong conference. At 9-5, they still have virtually no chance to make the playoffs. Even if Arizona wins in Seattle next week, the Cardinals would still have an uphill climb in terms of needing help to get in.

St. Louis Rams 27, New Orleans Saints 16

1. The Saints have lost four of their past five games away from the Superdome. They will have to go on the road to beat Carolina next week if they're going to win the NFC South. Of the top four NFC teams, New Orleans has shown the most blemishes over the past five weeks. A big part of that is Jimmy Graham's partially torn plantar fascia. Arguably the most dominant skill-position player in the league early this season, Graham been held under 60 receiving yards seven times in the past nine games after clearing 100 yards four times in the first five weeks.

2. Credit coach Jeff Fisher for a masterful game plan after assuming Tim Walton's responsibilities as defensive coordinator. Peeved over Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's abrupt departure last offseason, Fisher had his troops ready to play at a fever pitch Sunday. The Rams intercepted Drew Brees on his first two possessions, and never looked back.

3. Robert Quinn bolstered his case for Defensive Player of the Year with two more sacks on Brees. The fastest defensive end in the NFL, Quinn leads the league in forced fumbles in addition to combined quarterback sacks, hits and hurries.

Kansas City Chiefs 56, Oakland Raiders 31

1. Jamaal Charles bolstered his case for Offensive Player of the Year honors with five touchdowns. Also, his 195 receiving yards are the third-most by a running back since the NFL-AFL merger.

2. The Chiefs' offense has been far more dynamic over the last month. The unit topped the 28-point mark for the fourth consecutive game and scored 35-plus points for the third time over that span. The 56 points they hung on the Raiders is the most scored by any team this season, topping the Patriots' 55 against the Steelers in Week 9.

3. The Raiders clearly haven't found the answer at quarterback. Matt McGloin showed flashes in the game, tossing two TDs, but his good moments were overshadowed by four ghastly interceptions. The undrafted rookie threw a plethora of telegraphed passes, including two INTs into the arms of safety Eric Berry (one was a pick six).

Buffalo Bills 27, Jacksonville Jaguars 20

1. Maurice Jones-Drew told NFL Media last week that he expected his agent and the Jaguars to hammer out a contract extension in the offseason. The organization has another reason not to do it after Jordan Todman recorded more rushing yards and yards from scrimmage by the start of the fourth quarter than Jones-Drew has generated in any game this season. The difference in speed between the two backs is stark.

2. EJ Manuel rallied from a brutal first-quarter interception to produce one of his finest performances of his rookie season, passing for two scores and running for another. Manuel was aided by fellow rookie Robert Woods, who had his best game of the season.

3. Jacksonville showed once again that it has one of the shallowest rosters in the NFL. The Bills' front seven overwhelmed the talent-starved offensive line in pass protection, and the Jaguars' backup wide receivers cost them the game. Fill-in starter Kerry Taylor dropped a key third-down pass in the red zone and Mike Brown lost a fumble. Chad Henne's top three receivers were a pair of tight ends and a running back.

The latest "Around the League Podcast" broke down the Cowboys loss and every other Week 15 game.

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