Meaningful storylines abound following a sizzling-hot week in the NFL.
It's easy to fall victim to hyperbole the morning after an enticing Football Sunday, but I really believe Week 12's action provided widespread clarity on a number of teams across the league. The first 11 weeks of the season were pretty darn enigmatic, but many notions crystallized on Sunday.
Here are my biggest takeaways from a telling day of football, Schein Nine style:
1) The Cleveland Browns are not a fluke and will make the playoffs.
Brian Hoyer threw a couple of grotesqueinterceptions late in the fourth quarter, trying to force the ball to the freshly activated Josh Gordon. But thanks to Falcons coach Mike Smith's inexplicable clock management on the game's penultimate drive, Hoyer had a chance to redeem himself. And he did just that, directing a sensational final drive to set up the game-winning field goal.
Gordon's return from suspension is a game changer for Cleveland. He's one of the most talented offensive players in the game -- as evidenced by his eight-catch, 120-yard season debut -- and his presence in the aerial attack will only make Cleveland's ground game more potent. The Browns ran the ball with authority on Sunday, racking up 162 yards on 29 rushes (a robust 5.6 yards a pop).
Mike Pettine is proving to be a fabulous coach in his first year as an NFL head man. I really like the feel of his team -- a tasty mix of skill and pluck. And I really like how, in a big spot Sunday, Hoyer found a way to pull a rabbit out of a hat. This group's primed for January football.
2) Tony Romo = elite.
Sorry to dispel the dopey narrative that says this guy isn't clutch, but here's the reality: Tony Romo is an excellent quarterback, and a player I trust in high-leverage situations. He's always been this player.
3) The Patriots will host the Broncos on Championship Sunday.
New England showed off its defense, depth, talent and incredible coaching in a 34-9 dismantling of Detroit. Defensively, the Pats completely flummoxed Matthew Stafford and the Lions. The cornerbacks led the charge, putting together a fantastic effort against a dangerous receiving corps. Of course, the offense was even more impressive, slicing up Detroit's top-ranked D. Week 11 breakout star Jonas Gray oversleeps Friday and gets benched Sunday? No problem. LeGarrette Blount, freshly signed after being jettisoned by Pittsburgh, steps in and averages 6.5 yards per carry while logging two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Tom Brady continued his MVP-caliber season, completing over 70 percent of his passes for 349 yards and two touchdowns (against one pick).
So, yes, get ready for Manning-Brady XVII in Foxborough -- with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line yet again.
4) Detroit's in trouble in a highly competitive wild-card race.
Buckle up -- this is going to be a wild finish on the NFC side! I'm thinkin' two NFC squads will pile up double-digit wins ... and miss the playoffs.
Detroit has now lost two straight. The Lions can't score -- that's kind of a huge deal. Stafford has been shaky, and that premature fourth-down slide, just short of the sticks, was not his finest moment. To be fair, Stafford's receivers had a plethora of drops on Sunday in New England, but still, the quarterback completed just 39.1 percent of his passes (a career worst).
And while the Lions lost, each of their main wild-card competitors won. Dallas avoided an inexplicable defeat to New York on Sunday night thanks to Mr. Romo. Seattle showed its mettle in a statement win over a great Arizona team. If the season ended today, those two teams would grab the NFC's wild-card slots. And while the 49ers hardly looked the part in an unimpressive home win over Washington, you certainly can't count them out, given what they've accomplished over the past three seasons.
I think the Lions are going to miss the playoffs. It's not a matter of talent or remaining schedules. It's a matter of trust and competition.
5) The Packers are the best team in the NFC.
Meanwhile, the NFC North leader is beginning to establish itself as a conference favorite. OK, so the Packers' 24-21 win over Minnesota wasn't their most impressive outing of the season. But in this league, a road win's a road win -- especially against a divisional foe that knows you well. Also, here's the biggest development from the Packers' seventh win in their past eight games: Eddie Lacy rushed for a season-high 125 yards.
6) The Eagles are winning the NFC East.
I am such a believer in Chip Kelly. His team is the most well-coached in the NFC East, and inherently, it's the best. Of course, as previously documented, I'm not even remotely a believer in Mark Sanchez. But Kelly maximizes his quarterbacks and covers up their flaws with brilliant scheming. Philly got a huge boost from LeSean McCoy in Sunday's win over the Tennessee Titans. With 130 yards on 21 totes -- including a season-long 53-yard scamper -- Shady looked like the reigning rushing king that he is, despite how this season has played out. That's gigantic.
The Eagles play the Cowboys twice in the next three weeks, and I see the NFC East rivals splitting the series. Still, even though Dallas is demonstrating amazing heart when it matters most this season, Philadelphia is just better. I don't think this is a team built for a deep playoff run -- sorry, but even the great Kelly can't mask Sanchez's limitations forever -- but I do think this is a team built to win the NFC East for the second straight year.
7) Robert Griffin III is not the answer in D.C.
Jay Gruden was, in my opinion, smartly talking to Washington owner Daniel Snyder and the players in the locker room when he criticized Robert Griffin III last Monday for throwing his teammates under the bus. Gruden was trying to get Snyder's attention when he appropriately pointed out RGIII's shortcomings as a quarterback. Fittingly, Griffin went out and struggled mightily yet again in Washington's loss to San Francisco. One hundred and seventeen total yards of offense from the quarterback just isn't going to cut it.
Here's the cold truth: We will never again see the quarterback who was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012. And the head coach knows it.
8) The Buccaneers are worse off than the Bears.
Yes, the Bears' QB-coach tandem of Marc Trestman and Jay Cutler has underachieved this season. No doubt about it. But Tampa's corresponding combo has been even worse. The Bucs expected Lovie to lead them to the playoffs. They have two wins despite playing in a division that will probably go down as one of the worst in NFL history.
9) The Rams need a quarterback.
St. Louis' comeback bid in San Diego came up short when Shaun Hill threw an unacceptable pick in the end zone, with the Rams in position to at least tie the game with a chip-shot field goal. I begged St. Louis to take a QB in May's draft. I'm not going to disparage the Aaron Donald pick, because he has been superb in the middle of the defense. But the Rams had a pair of first-round selections, and they could've used their draft chips to land a quarterback one way or another. Personally, I think they should've gotten their hands on Johnny Manziel.