Baby, it's cold outside -- but the playoff races are heating up!
The moribund AFC South showed signs of life on Sunday with each of its three contenders coming away with victories. Brock Osweiler was finally -- mercilessly -- benched in favor of Tom Savage, who led a major Texans comeback over the Jaguars to stay tied in the lead in the South with the Titans ... whose quarterback, Marcus Mariota overcame early errors to ignite a 10-point comeback in frigid Kansas City ... but don't count out the Colts, who rolled over the hapless Vikings and are just one game back.
Elsewhere, a Lions loss to the Giants and a close Packers victory in the sub-zero Windy City closed the former's lead in the NFC North to one game; and with their respective wins, Baltimore and Pittsburgh stayed neck-and-neck atop the AFC North with next week's matchup looming. Here's what we've learned so far from Week 15:
1. Abolish "icing the kicker" forever, especially when it's one degree outside. Chiefs coach Andy Reid cost his team the win in part because he called a timeout before Titans kicker Ryan Succop attempted a 53-yard field goal as time expired. Succop came up short on his first try, but nailed it the second time around after warming up. It capped an incredible fourth quarter by Marcus Mariota where he led the Titans to three scoring drives to stun the Chiefs.
2. This is one to remember in Mariota's development. In frigid conditions, Mariota rebounded from two poor turnovers to lead a 10-point fourth quarter comeback in Arrowhead. Tennessee's 88-yard touchdown drive included two third-and-long conversions and another beautiful throw on fourth-and-5. Given 1:07 and no timeouts, Mariota calmly knew just where to go with the ball to set up the game-winning field goal. Now 8-6, this Titans squad has the look of a playoff team.
3. This was a game of missed opportunities for the Chiefs. They were stuffed twice on the goal line in the first half, including a fourth down try by Spencer Ware. Alex Smith's awful interception in the end zone helped turn the game around. After a fantastic first half by Smith that included a few beautiful deep throws, the Chiefs offense was scoreless after halftime.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
1. Eli Manning is officially the one gear in this machine that isn't operating at full speed. The Giants were gifted a knockout-blow touchdown in the fourth quarter thanks to an unbelievable individual effort by Odell Beckham, who outstretched his non-dominant left hand and hauled in a pass before slipping just inside the pylon. The Giants will take it. Their defense has come together beautifully and they may be the single most dominant unit in football heading into the final two weeks of the season. Should Manning, who still managed over 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns without an interception, find his form from last year, this is without a doubt a serious Super Bowl contender.
2. The Lions had the chance to clinch a division title on Sunday and even though that didn't happen, they did show that they aren't afraid to let quarterback Matthew Stafford rip with the injury to his middle finger. Stafford attempted 39 passes and logged 273 yards (no touchdowns and a late interception). It wasn't a stellar performance but, more importantly, he did not appear limited significantly. Detroit (9-5) now heads to Dallas for a stellar Monday Night Football matchup that could paint the complete divisional picture a week from now.
3. We can fool ourselves into thinking it doesn't happen, but there are players who check out at this time of year and start making vacation plans. I don't think any of us could blame them. And then there are moments like the second quarter of Sunday's game when Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie chases down a wide open Golden Tate and saves a touchdown. On the following play, the Giants forced a fumble and got the ball back. This game was full of smart, passionate football.
-- Conor Orr
1. This time around, Tom Brady had the benefit of a bona fide ground attack, a healthy offensive line and a game-plan designed to remove the Broncos' best player -- Defensive Player of the Year candidate Von Miller -- from the equation. Overcoming his least-effective opening frame in 13 years, Brady came alive in the second quarter, leading a seven-play, 46-yard touchdown drive for a 10-point swing after Trevor Siemian was intercepted in the red zone. Josh McDaniels called more runs than Brady pass attempts for the first time this season, but when Brady did drop back in the pocket, he got rid of the ball quickly, targeting Julian Edelman or James White on 65 percent of his 31 throws. Following the Chiefs' loss on Sunday, the Pats now hold a one-game lead for the No. 1 seed with matchups remaining versus the 4-10 Jets and 9-5 Dolphins.
2. Denver's defense turned in the stingiest performance versus Brady all season, but couldn't compensate for a one-dimensional offense that continues to be held back by the offensive line and backfield. Siemian's attack managed just nine yards on its first 15 plays of the second half, short-circuiting any chance of a comeback in a tight game played close to the vest. As promising as Siemian has been in his first year at the helm of Gary Kubiak's offense, Broncos quarterbacks have led touchdown drives on just two of 37 possessions over the past three weeks.
3. The Patriots defense has not been tested by a great quarterback since the Week 10 loss to Russell Wilson's Seahawks, but they have to be encouraged by the improved play of late. Led by burgeoning pass rusher Trey Flowers, the front seven harassed Siemian for four sacks and contributed six tackles for loss. Safety Devin McCourty laid a big hit on Demaryius Thomas, separating the receiver from the ball on a key fourth down late in the game. Emerging as one of the NFL's finest all-around cornerbacks, Malcolm Butler put the clamps on Emmanuel Sanders, shutting out Denver's No. 1 receiver for three quarters.
-- Chris Wesseling
1. A loyal and vocal bunch, Raiders fans have been through hell this century. No longer. Sunday's victory sealed Oakland's first playoff berth since 2002 and helped them regain sole possession of the AFC West after Kansas City (10-4) fell to the Titans. With games remaining against the Colts and Broncos, the Raiders simply need to hold serve to nab a coveted bye in the AFC.
2. Time to fret over Oakland's offense? Instead, let's credit an active Chargers defense that looked like it still had plenty to play for this season. Sunday's showdown served as a wire-to-wire grind for a Raiders team that has posted 30-plus points in seven of 13 outings, second only to the high-flying Falcons. Coming off his worst game of the year, Carr threw for just 213 yards in a tilt that saw reliable kicker Sebastian Janikowski punch home four field goals. Oakland struggled early with two uncharacteristic turnovers on a day that saw no Raiders receiver cross the 60-yard barrier. The most hopeful note for Oakland was that Carr -- throwing exclusively out of the shotgun for the third straight game because of a dislocated pinky -- showed no visible discomfort and threw the ball well, save for a costly first-half pick.
3. Philip Rivers shook off last week's five-turnover implosion to keep San Diego alive until the bitter end. Then disaster struck, with the wily veteran tossing a game-ending interception to cover man Reggie Nelson with 1:37 left on the clock. The giveaway put an ugly exclamation mark on a game that saw Rivers -- 17 of 30 for 206 yards -- rip through Oakland's secondary for much of the second half. Along the way he threw a 47-yard touchdown strike to Travis Benjamin and another score to rookie tight end Hunter Henry that notched a 16-13 lead in the third quarter. That lead, as with so many other Chargers games this season, was not meant to be.
-- Marc Sessler
1. Good luck figuring out Chuck Pagano's dual-personality Colts squad. The one consistent this season has been a tendency to exceed expectations when Andrew Luck is afforded adequate protection in the pocket. Playing behind his 35th different starting offensive line combination in 68 career regular-season games, Luck picked the Vikings' ferocious front seven apart in Indianapolis' finest all-around effort of 2016. He led first-half touchdown drives of 91 and 92 yards and dealt the final blow with a 50-yard scoring strike to Phillip Dorsett early in the fourth quarter.
2. Adrian Peterson's long-awaited return was anticlimactic. Sporting a brace on his surgically repaired knee, the seven-time Pro Bowler managed just 22 yards on six carries, losing a red-zone fumble at the tail end of his longest run (13 yards). Although Peterson functioned as the primary early-down back until the game was out of hand, he never had a chance to reach second gear behind Minnesota's anemic offensive line.
3. This was essentially a "loser goes home" clash between a pair of disappointing teams with fatal flaws. The optimist in Indianapolis will take comfort in the best performances of the season from the offensive line, ground attack and defense -- three areas widely viewed as liabilities entering Week 15. Traveling to Oakland before hosting Jacksonville to close out the season, the Colts have to feel good about their chances with a tie-breaker edge over the Titans while the Texans are mired in quarterback hell. The Vikings, on the other hand, fall to third place in their division and the periphery of the NFC wild-card race.
-- Chris Wesseling
1. Rodgers' calf restricted his movement outside of the pocket. The quarterback displayed little burst on scrambles. His lack of mobility when flushed cost Green Bay a few first downs and a potential touchdown scamper. Rodgers showed no such struggles with his accuracy and movement in the pocket. His 60-yard dime to Nelson on third down to set up the game-winning field goal was vintage Rodgers. When he was able to set his feet, the Packers' passer is still precise. The Bears' pass rush bothered Rodgers early (three first-half sacks), but drops did more damage to Rodgers' stat line (19 of 31, 252 yards, 0TDs, 0INTs). Davante Adams dropped two easy TD catches and the usually sure-handed Jordy Nelson flubbed a long pass. Nelson made up for it by hauling in the game-deciding pass. Rodgers' calf will continue to be monitored as the season comes to a close, but shouldn't keep him out of pivotal matchups with the Vikings and Lions.
2. Matt Barkley continues to earn money. In his fourth start, Barkley threw darts through the cold weather, making several pinpoint passes early and great reads down the field late. As it has been in his previous two losses, close wasn't good enough for Barkley. The quarterback marched the Bears on a potential game-winning drive. A holding penalty backed the Bears up on first-and-goal, and a third down pass was knocked down in the end zone. The Bears settled for a chip-shot field goal to tie the game, but gave Rodgers too much time to drive for the win.
3. Green Bay found its running back. Ty Montgomery trampled over would-be tacklers for 162 yards on just 16 carries (10.1 average) and two rushing scores. The receiver-turned-running back ripped off runs of 61, 36, 26 and 21 yards. Montgomery's vision from the backfield has improved immensely. He hits the hole harder, displayed shiftiness on the second level and plowed through arm tackles. Christine Michael awoke up from his Green Bay slumber for a 42-yard TD run, but he's clearly behind Montgomery in the pecking order.
-- Kevin Patra
1. Ravens fans will question why Baltimore dialed up a risky first-down pass play at Philly's 11-yard line with just over six minutes to play. Up 27-17, the Ravens were in fine position to milk the clock and -- at worst -- kick a field goal. Instead, quarterback Joe Flacco tossed a pass toward the end zone that was picked off by linebacker Jordan Hicks to set up a field-goal march that brought Philly within a touchdown. Flacco also hurt the Ravens with a first-half fumble at his own eight-yard line that triggered a quick seven points for the Eagles. These mistakes are partly why Flacco came into the game ranked 25th in passer rating, but the veteran looked good unfurling a brilliant 34-yard touchdown strike to Steve Smith just before the half. The Ravens need more of this.
2. Carson Wentz is a work in progress, but you have to like his chemistry with Zach Ertz, who hauled down six grabs for 80 yards. Still, this passing game was largely a mess on Sunday, leaving the Eagles to hand Ryan Mathews a heavy workload on the ground. The veteran back piled up an admirable 128 yards against a Baltimore defense that came into the game allowing a league-best 75.5 yards per tilt. Only Isaiah Crowell has done more damage to the Ravens this season, running for 133 yards way back in Week 2.
3. The Ravens promised to bring more balance on offense. They delivered with a season-high 151 yards on the ground led by Terrance West (13/77) and the emergent Kenneth Dixon (9/36). The rookie Dixon carried the Ravens on his back during a critical third-quarter scoring march that saw him dent the Eagles with a rash of white-knuckle runs capped by a 16-yard touchdown burst to put Baltimore up 27-17 with 11 minutes to go.
-- Marc Sessler
1. Quarterback controversy, begone. One week removed from the worst performance of his rookie season, Dak Prescott put to bed suggestions that Dallas should consider playing Tony Romo, completing 89 percent of his passes -- the second-highest mark in NFL history -- and running for a score against one of the hottest defenses in the league. Prescott went to his bread-and-butter with incredible efficiency: Jason Witten short in the middle (10 catches), Dez Bryant past the sticks (8), Cole Beasley outside the numbers (4). It was only when Dallas got cute with its play-calling (see: multiple unsuccessful jets sweeps to Lucky Whitehead) that the Cowboys went backwards against the Bucs. With his 279-yard evening, Prescott broke a three-game streak of less than 200 passing yards and looked more than ready to lead the 'Boys into January.
2. Dak was of course buoyed by another star turn from fellow rookie and MVP candidate Ezekiel Elliott. The running back scampered and hurdled for a career-high 159 yards and one touchdown, shedding Tampa Bay's hard-hitting tacklers with ease. With two games to go against Detroit and Philadelphia, Elliott needs just 258 rush yards to break Eric Dickerson's rookie record (1,808 yards); if he runs like he did against the Bucs' stiff front, Elliott will write his name in the record books. As Dallas' dynamic duo goes, the team goes. The dichotomy between the past two SNF games is a clear indication of that.
3. Tampa Bay was undone by turnovers. The Cowboys converted two Jameis Winston giveaways in Buccaneers territory -- one strip sack and one interception -- into 10 points, which was more than the deciding deficit. When the Cowboys gave the Bucs life with a fumble of their own, Tampa Bay squandered the opportunity with a three-and-out and a punt. The mark of a young team is its inability to play smart football in big spots and take advantage of turnovers. On a night that was supposed to be Tampa's coming-out party, Winston and the Bucs let themselves down.
-- Jeremy Bergman
1. Atlanta's greatest weapon early in the season was its air attack, with Julio Jones at the center. But in the last two weeks, the Falcons have thrived even without Jones. The scheduling gods did the Falcons a favor with this two-game stretch against the Rams and Niners, yes, but what's most impressive is how Matt Ryan spreads it around to anyone wearing red and black. Taylor Gabriel has gotten a chance to show off his route running abilities and pure speed, posting near-identical games in the last two weeks (three catches, 82 yards, one touchdown vs. Los Angeles; three catches, 60 yards, one touchdown vs. San Francisco).
2. The league has been put on notice. Atlanta's dynamic duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is a pair to be feared. A stocky runner who is tough to tackle, Freeman was a force on the ground Sunday, rushing 20 times for 139 yards and three touchdowns against San Francisco's league-worst run defense. The runs were even more impressive than his numbers, as Freeman broke three tackles to score his second touchdown after strolling into the end zone for his first trip to paydirt. Add in Coleman, who offers another pass-catching option out of the backfield, and you have a Falcons offense that can get it done on the ground and through the air.
3. Carlos Hyde remains one of the very few bright spots on the 49ers roster. After Atlanta took a 21-0 lead in the first, it looked like the game was over before it really even began. That ended up being true, but you wouldn't have known it by watching Hyde, who rushed 13 times for 71 yards that were much more powerful and eye-opening than the statistics indicate.
-- Nick Shook
1. For at least a few days, the heat is off Tyrod Taylor and Rex Ryan. Buffalo got a break with a matchup against the NFL's worst team in Cleveland and capitalized, running roughshod through Cleveland's sieve-like defense for 280 yards. Buffalo relied on what it does best offensively, blocking well for LeSean McCoy, who looked as good as ever in slicing through the opposing unit with shifty cuts and bursts of speed. These Bills need a lot of help to sneak into the postseason -- they're not mathematically eliminated, but the chances remain slim -- but Taylor and Ryan can avoid questions about their statuses in the coming days.
2. Robert Griffin III did Robert Griffin III things, like rolling out and launching it deep, extending plays with his feet to complete passes while getting crushed as he released, and even running for a touchdown. But for every good thing he did, there were at least two bad things. Griffin badly missed open receivers running mid-level routes on multiple occasions, and held onto the ball for far too long in the pocket, resulting in multiple sacks (Buffalo finished with a total of five). Coach Hue Jackson said that, for the final two weeks of the season, change is possible anywhere and everyone is in play, which is how it should be when you're 0-14.
3. A young fan held up a sign before the contest that pondered why the game wasn't scheduled in primetime. Here's a fun fact: the Browns and Bills have met in a primetime slot twice in the last decade (MNF 2008, TNF 2013). Cleveland won each of those contests, but thankfully for the rest of Americans with working sensory organs, this one was a regional broadcast. The Bills were the better team from the start of the game, dominating Cleveland in the second half and capping it with none other than EJ Manuel entering to take snaps late in the fourth.
-- Nick Shook
1. The Steelers won, but make no mistake, this was a Bengals second-half implosion. Leading 20-9 at the half, Cincy could only muster 38 yards in the game's final 30 minutes after the offense moved down the field effortlessly to start the game. No sequence defined the collapse more than on the Steelers' go-ahead drive, when the Bengals committed a penalty on four consecutive plays that each resulted in a Steelers first down. Ben Roethlisberger and Co. took advantage, as Big Ben's 24-yard touchdown toss to Eli Rogers with 7:29 left were the final points of the game.
2. This should be scary for the rest of the AFC: Pittsburgh really hasn't had a truly dynamic game on offense in a while (the Steelers haven't reached 30 points in more than a month). Yet the team is one of the hottest teams in football, now riding a five-game winning streak. Antonio Brown had a season-low three receptions; Le'Veon Bell had 131 yards from scrimmage (including 93 yards on the ground on just 4.0 yards per carry), down from his 161.6 yards from scrimmage average over his first 10 games this season; and the Steelers were unable to convert most of the time once they reached opponent's territory, resulting in Chris Boswell tying a franchise record with six field goals.
3. This was Vontaze Burfict's first game playing the rival Steelers since the infamous 2015 AFC Wild Card battle that led to his three-game suspension to start the 2016 campaign. The prolific linebacker had a great start, flying all over the field and showing off his sideline-to-sideline tackling prowess. He was sidelined for a bit after a hit to the helmet by Steelers guard David DeCastro on a run block. Burfict returned to start the half and was flagged for unnecessary roughness on the Steelers' first drive in the third quarter. All in all, Burfict finished with a team-leading nine tackles in another eventful contest against the Steelers.
-- Max Meyer
1. After back-to-back three-interception, no-touchdown performances, Drew Brees was back in top form against the Cardinals. The Saints signal-caller came out ahead in a shootout with Carson Palmer. Brees lobbed four touchdowns for 389 yards, and he needed every last one of them in this wild affair. The victory was Brees' 100th as a member of the Saints. It's a shame that for the third-straight year, one of the league's best quarterbacks will be sitting on the sidelines when the playoffs roll around.
2. The Cardinals' season in a nutshell could be summed up by two fourth-quarter plays. After holding the Saints to a field-goal try inside the red zone, Arizona got a neutral-zone infraction to give New Orleans a first down. Tim Hightower took it into the end zone on the next play for a touchdown lead. Later, the Cardinals stopped the Saints on third down with a sack but were called for roughing the passer on the play, good for an automatic Saints first down. This led to another Hightower rushing touchdown for a two-possession lead -- all but sealing the game.
3. David Johnson broke an NFL record, earning his 14th-straight game of 100 yards from scrimmage after totaling 108 on the ground and through the air in the loss. Johnson might be the league's most dynamic offensive player, and he doesn't have the offensive line that rookie Ezekiel Elliott has in Dallas. The question lingers on whether the nucleus of Bruce Arians, Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald will stick together to see what they can muster in 2017 with Johnson in tow. A preseason favorite of many to reach the Super Bowl, Arizona will miss the playoffs for the first time in three years.
-- Mark E. Ortega
1. The Texans were looking for a spark when they benched Brock Osweiler in favor of Tom Savage following interceptions on back-to-back drives at home in the second quarter, and they got it. Savage didn't make any mistakes, throwing for 260 yards in two-plus quarters -- just nine yards shy of Osweiler's season high. Savage looked great on the drives that mattered most, late in the game down two possessions and then down six points needing a touchdown.
2. The Jaguars did what they've done all year: Find a way to lose. They built an early 13-0 lead in the second quarter off of Osweiler's two interceptions, including a Blake Bortles one-yard touchdown run. The Jaguars stopped the Texans on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line to keep them off the board in the second. Jacksonville's most dynamic play of the game was a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Marqise Lee. Bortles managed not to make any big mistakes until the Jaguars' final shot to regain the lead with a minute left when he threw a game-sealing interception.
Editor's note: Following the loss, the Jaguars fired coach Gus Bradley after three-plus seasons in Jacksonville. Bradley's .226 win percentage (14-48) is the worst in the Super Bowl era among coaches with a minimum of 50 games coached.
3. The Texans remain tied atop the AFC South with the Titans after Tennessee beat Kansas City. It'll be interesting to see what O'Brien decides to do moving forward at the quarterback position. In his post-game press conference, O'Brien was non-committal, saying they'll do what is in the best interest of the team. For at least two quarters, that seemed to be rolling with Savage at the helm. O'Brien did mention that decisions aren't made based on how much money guys make, a nod to Osweiler's $37 million guaranteed he earned in his offseason contract.
-- Mark E. Ortega