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Patriots climb into top three; Bears' freefall continues

Week 15 saw the worst team win and the best team stumble. Just another notch in former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's parity belt ...

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So what's next? Some jumbling near the top, to be sure. The Ravens were rewarded last week, not so much for beating the troubled Colts, but for the trials and tribulations of the Pats defense and Ben Roethlisberger's high ankle sprain. The blowout in San Diego exposed quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens' corners. Still, look for John Harbaugh to right the ship.

The mighty have fallen in the NFC, if only for one game. Maybe you can't plug and play at every position. With multiple linemen down, as well as one of the best wide receivers in pro football, we shall see how the "next man up" theory works in Green Bay this time around.

The Pack remains at the top for now. Otherwise, let the dissension thrive for another week ...

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Even the best teams can only take so many injuries on the offensive line. Derek Sherrod is gone for the remainder of the season and Bryan Bulaga is hurt again. Ditto Chad Clifton. Aaron Rodgers, for all of his MVP qualities, needs protection like any other quarterback, and the numbers reflect it. Discount Doublecheck completed less than 50 percent of his passes for only the third time since taking over as a starter in 2008. It's worth noting that the Greg Jennings injury hurt a little more than we all thought. Jennings can play the X, Y, and Z. That's a lot of versatility missed.

Drew Brees could have thrown for 500 Sunday. Next.

New England loses its most steady defensive player in Andre Carter. Considering this is the league's 32nd-ranked defense, as in the worst, that's not good. Carter is a good, not great, player who contributed 10 sacks to the cause this season. Bill Belichick could use those this time of year, much like in 2010.

Two guys dominated Monday night: Aldon Smith and the little-known Larry Grant, who was all over the place. Jon Gruden couldn't quit gushing about him. It's understandable. The defense looked great, and due to never getting their butts handed to them, the Niners jump back above the very team who beat them Thanksgiving night.

First, I was criticized for not having Baltimore higher based on two wins over Pittsburgh. Then I got harangued for moving them up after they handled the Colts. What will you say now? The bottom line for this franchise is quarterback play. The defense may have gotten whipped in San Diego, but Joe Flacco's two gift picks put that unit behind the 8-ball. This is still a solid team, but the fact is even Alex Smith has outplayed Flacco. That's saying something brother.

Monday night was certainly a tough loss as far as the playoff chase is concerned. The Steelers have to get Rashard Mendenhall and the running game going while also max protecting a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger to have success in the playoffs.

The Texans were without defensive leader Wade Philips on Sunday, and it certainly showed. The Panthers offense had their way on third down, converting 9-of-14 attempts and rolling up 166 yards on the ground. The Texans are vying for a first-round bye, but could very well fall to the No. 3 seed and have to play in the wild-card round.

If only the Falcons could play Blaine Gabbert every week. Coming off the drubbing of the Jags, Atlanta is sitting pretty in the playoff race. While catching the Saints isn't likely, it's still possible. Mike Smith's squad needs a win in New Orleans this week and again in Week 17 and then hope the Panthers upset the Saints. Hey, if the Chiefs can knock off the greatest team in the history of football, why not?

It had to end some time. The surprise wasn't the end of Tebowmania's win streak, but rather the demise of Denver's defense. Especially after starting fast with a 16-7 lead at home. Then the second quarter happened. Denver has been outscored 137-33 in the second quarter this season, including 20-3 by the Patriots on Sunday. Talk about bizarre. Assuming they don't have to play second quarters the next two weeks, Tebowmania can win the AFC West with wins over the Bills and Chiefs.

I lost interest at 28-3. Brian Schottenheimer's offense has looked awful at times this season. Santonio Holmes has had the worst season of his career, and put his personal stamp on the loss first by fumbling during the first quarter and then later by letting a ball go right through his hands on the way to Asante Samuel's. The Jets got a nice break from Indy knocking of the Titans and still have a shot at that elusive sixth seed.

A big win in terms of playoff hopes, but not particularly notable. The Bengals let the Kellen Clemens-led Rams hang around far too long while struggling offensively on third down. Cincinnati hosts Arizona and Baltimore over the final two weeks, and needs the Jets to lose a game along the way.

Lions fans, rightly so, can be negative Nancys. Who could blame them after a decade of Millenmania and futility? So let's look at their playoff scenarios. If Detroit wins one more game, they're in ... period. If for some reason, the ghost of the Scott Mitchell signing shows up and they lose both games, the only way Detroit could make the postseason at 9-7 would be in a single tie-break situation with Dallas. So several other teams have to lose over the final two weeks.

Rob Ryan's defense worked harder than his leave-in conditioner Saturday night, but there were still second-half breakdowns that give Cowboys fans serious pause. A huge bright side of the win in Tampa was the play of Felix Jones, who certainly had a fire lit under him after watching DeMarco Murray take his job. Jones now has 268 yards from scrimmage the past two weeks. Funny how that works.

You'd think Eli Manning asked his teammates to help him move out of his apartment. Talk about getting no help. Hakeem Nicks dropped a deep ball right in his hands. D.J. Ware bobbled a sure touchdown catch. Big Blue failed to get points on both drives. Manning didn't help himself with turnovers, either. The defense played better than it did in Dallas. Still, all is not lost. If the Giants win their next two games (vs. Jets, vs. Cowboys), they still win the NFC East.

Oakland really needed that 65-yard kick. How cool would that have been? Once again, the secondary got beat in the red zone. While the Raiders came into Week 15 only allowing opposing passers a 76.5 rating, they've allowed a whopping 27 touchdown passes. It's no surprised they're near the bottom of the league in red-zone defense (27th), which is based on what percentage of opponent drives result in touchdowns.

Jimmy Smith still can't cover Malcolm Floyd. In fact, he succeeded in making Floyd look like THE Jimmy Smith ... as in, the dude who caught several hundred balls for the Jags and teamed with Keenan McCardell to form one of the best wideout duos ever. Philip Rivers is benefitting from the much-improved play from Floyd and the inconsistent Vincent Jackson. If those two get going, and Rivers gets the protection he received Sunday night, this team will make the playoff race interesting. By the way, stay in bounds, Ryan Mathews.

After the Seahawks got obliterated in Pittsburgh in Week 2, most league observers thought this team would be lucky to win five games. Unbelievably, Seattle now sits at 7-7. Let's switch gears, though: Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell called a pitch to Justin Forsett on first-and-goal from the two-foot line Sunday. Then, after that play lost 3 yards, he decided to give it to Marshawn Lynch from the 4. No dice. Luckily for the Seahawks, the offense was bailed out on that key red-zone possession after the Bears got called for leaping. Lesson: If you're 1 or 2 yards out, just give it to No. 24. This isn't the time of year to get cute.

That was awful. The Jake Locker and the future-is-now discussion was all the buzz last week. It was at full tilt by the third quarter. Matt Hasselbeck struggled, throwing two big INTS (including a pick-six) while averaging just 5 yards per pass attempt. Mike Munchak is not a knee-jerk guy, clearly. Still, with the loss by the Jets, now is the time to go for the wild card. Make the move, big guy.

Let me guess, you checked the standings Monday morning and couldn't believe your eyes when you saw that the Cardinals were 7-7. Ken Whisenhunt's club is still alive in the playoff chase as well, provided they win out. Granted, they need a ton of help, starting with the Falcons or Lions losing out. The Cards also require a Bears' loss somewhere, unless the same strange nebula which caused Kahn's stolen ship to be inoperative in Star Trek II similarly triggered everyone to finish 9-7 ... well, in that case Chicago would be the No. 5 seed and the Cardinals would reside at No. 6. Who's confused?

Michael Vick seems to be holding up, but who really knows. Say what you want about Vick, but he is still a very tough player in his early 30s. This deal could get serious if Vick can hold up and play well in Dallas. The NFC East -- believe it or not -- is there for the taking for Philly. They must win out and hope the Giants also beat the Cowboys come Week 17. Oh, but the Eagles also need the G-Men to falter against the Jets next week. If the Jets play like they did Sunday at the Linc, forget it. Don't forget 2006 and 2009, when it took miracles for the Eagles to make the postseason. Stuff happens.

Miami sure feels better than a 5-9 football team. Maybe it's because they've won five of the past seven. Maybe it's because Mike Nolan's defense has been playing as good as anyone over the past month and a half. Maybe it's because Reggie Bush (203 rushing yards) is playing like a guy who was drafted second overall in 2006. Would you believe Bush's career-high was just 126 yards coming into Sunday? In fact, that was his only career 100-yard game coming into 2011. He now has four this season.

All those fans who cited how well Caleb Hanie played in last year's NFC Championship Game have finally been muted, as has the Bears' chances of playing significant football in January. Considering this is the last year of Matt Forte's rookie contract, do the Bears go ahead and trot him out there with nothing to lose? Either way, even with the Giants falling, it's probably too little, too late.

Is there any cooler play in football than the fumblerooski? The Panthers pulled off a beauty in Houston. The way the season has gone, you have to figure Denver is the only team that could've pulled that off. Carolina has now won three of four. Considering they're 5-9, what if they had been better at closing games early on? Carolina has lost five games by one score this season, and with just a couple of breaks, we would be talking playoffs (playoffs?!) right now.

Quite simply, that was the greatest debut by an interim head coach in NFL history, Romeo Crennel. To take a rudderless team that just lost 37-10, and then turn around and beat the 13-0 defending Super Bowl champion is nothing short of sick. The Packers came in averaging 35.8 points per game. Crennel's boys held them to 14.

From the I-don't-know-what-to-attribute-this-to department, the Redskins entered Sunday's game leading the NFL in penalties called against their opponent. Washington's opponents had been called for a whopping 103 penalties in 13 games. Naturally, the Giants were called for eight last weekend for 75 damaging yards. In unrelated news, Jim Haslett's defense was outstanding in the win.

Yes the Bills destroyed the Redskins, who are ranked higher. But that was before a seven-game losing streak. Only Tampa is colder than Buffalo. Speaking of, what happened to the cold weather advantage in Buffalo against those warm-weather wusses from Miami? Do the Bills regret paying Ryan Fitzpatrick? Fitzmagic has been anything but during the losing streak with a passer rating of 66.2 since the calendar turned to November. That's 29th in the NFL. Look at the bright side, Bills fans: it's higher than Caleb Hanie's and Tyler Palko's. However, Fitzpatrick does lead in most interceptions thrown since Nov. 1.

Mike Holmgren thinks this club should be at least 7-7, but seemingly has given Pat Shurmur a vote of confidence. There are murmurs that some people around the league feel the Browns were actually better under Eric Mangini. Shurmur deserves three seasons to turn this thing around. Not to mention, an overtime loss on the road in the NFL is not the worst thing in the world.

There's no need to pile on an awful performance in Atlanta. But if I'm a Jags fan, I want to see some frustration, angst and pissed-off-ness from my team's starting quarterback. Blaine Gabbert, you just fumbled to give the Falcons a red-zone opportunity. Show us a grimace, a pursed lip, anything to let people know you're not satisfied with failure. Tucking the bangs in the Jags baseball hat and plopping down on the bench isn't the body language this teams needs right now.

Covering the Cowboys-Bucs game for Live, I slobbered all over the anchor desk when researcher Bill Sudell shared a nugget in my earpiece. Tony Romo first-half touchdowns -- four. Josh Freeman first-half pass attempts -- four. That's freaking unbelievable. While Freeman has regressed somewhat, consider that he has a suspect offensive line, receivers who can't get one foot of separation and the league's 27th-ranked running game.

We can discuss Christian Ponder all we want, but until somebody in the secondary decides they're going to cover somebody, it doesn't much matter. Fran Tarkenton, Chris Carter, and Steve Jordan could've all come back, and it wouldn't have been enough to keep up with the Saints passing attack Sunday. Opponents are completing over 60 percent of their passes on both Cedric Griffin and Asher Allen, the two starters at corner. It might be time to make this position group a first-round priority. The fact that Antoine Winfield is on IR and 34 years old doesn't paint the picture at corner any prettier.

The name Josh McDaniels is one that I continue to hear come up as a potential candidate for one of the coaching vacancies around the league, such as Kansas City. What has McDaniels done that would lead an owner to believe he should be the front man for a franchise? The Rams offense is ranked 30th in the NFL. At least he's improved Sam Bradford's game. Except not at all.

That was one sick run, Donald Brown. I was glad to see the Colts win, as I've never been one to root for a team to go winless, or a coach get fired. That said, the Colts are still crappy.

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