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Playoff picture takes shape: 16 takeaways from Thursday

How much fun is the NFC going to be down the stretch in 2014?

The Seahawks (8-4) greatly improved their odds of making the playoffs after a gritty win over their division-rival 49ers, while San Francisco needs plenty of things to break their way.

If they can solve some problems offensively, Seattle looks like it could be nipping at Arizona's heels all the way to a Dec. 21 rematch that might end up being one of the best prime-time games of the season.

From a mental standpoint, it seems like the balance of power has absolutely shifted. After Thursday's win over the 49ers, Earl Thomas talked about how some early-season friction ended up producing a stronger bond in their locker room. His team has the best quarterback, running game and defense in the division. How many people are willing to bet against them at this point? What makes us certain that some of their lesser known weapons won't develop over the final section of the season?

It would be fascinating to see how differently the outcomes would be if they were given another crack at the Cowboys (descending) and Packers (rising) over the next few weeks.

Here's everything you need to know from a delicious slate of Thanksgiving games, where we discuss this -- and much more:

Here's what else we learned during the Thanksgiving games:

  1. Detroit's embattled offense got healthy on Turkey Day. After snapping a streak of 25 straight drives without a touchdown, Matthew Stafford and the Lions ripped off three consecutive scores before the break to put the Bears on ice. In the first half alone, Stafford completed 22 of 26 passes for 275 yards. Calvin Johnson, meanwhile, was outstanding, amassing a season-high 11 receptions for 146 yards and two touchdowns. The onslaught came against a banged-up, talent-poor Bears defense, but the Lions on Thursday showed how explosive they can be when Golden Tate -- with another eight catches for 89 yards -- is paired with a fully operational Megatron.
  1. Jay Cutler was white-hot out of the gate, throwing a pair of touchdown strikes over Chicago's first three possessions. After Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall combined for just 54 yards last week -- their lowest output in two years -- the duo returned to total 113 yards off 15 grabs. This air attack, though, remains a shell of last year's tantalizing outfit. 
  1. With Reggie Bush ruled out, Joique Bell overcame a slow start to churn out 91 yards at 4.0 yards per carry. Most of that came in garbage time for the NFL's third-worst run game. The Lions can hang with anyone when the passing attack sings, but it's hard to believe long-term in a squad that can't pound the ball when it needs to. Today was an aberration.
  1. Lions tight end Eric Ebron made our list of rookie disappointments, but his freakish athleticism was on display during a first-down grab that saw the pass-catcher leap over Bears corner Kyle Fuller for a 13-yard gain. He's far from a core part of the offense, but Ebron followed up his season-high seven targets in Week 12 with three catches for 23 yards.
  1. Matt Forte's strong season has been overlooked on a bad Bears team, but he never got started against Detroit. Ndamukong Suh and friends held Chicago to just 13 yards rushing at a sorry 1.6 yards per clip. Cutler in the second half threw 13 straight passes at one stage to avoid Detroit's swarming, top-ranked run defense.

-- Marc Sessler

  1. The Cowboyswere worried about Philly's fast-break offense, and with good reason. The Eagles set the tone immediately with a whirlwind opening march that chewed up 80 yards over nine plays in just three minutes. Philly would never look back. Excorcising 'butt fumble' ghosts, Mark Sanchez passed for 217 yards and deftly led an attack that piled up 464 total yards. Under the tutelage of Chip Kelly, Sanchez is worlds beyond his Jets days. The misreads and mental gaffes still bubble up, but he doesn't force throws and he's more precise on designed rollouts and passes outside the pocket.
  1. The Cowboys came in hoping to do what they do best: Dictate the pace of the game by riding DeMarco Murray behind the NFL's finest offensive line. Not today, with Philly building an early lead and holding Murray to a manageable 73 yards off 20 attempts. Two weeks after allowing 53 points to the Packers, the Eagles successfully shut down lanes and won the battle in short-yardage situations.
  1. Coming off last week's 130-yard explosion, LeSean McCoy burned through the Cowboys for 159 yards off 25 carries. Shady is every bit the runner he was last season when the blocking holds up. He crossed the 1,000-yard mark on Thursday and showed great patience and vision against a Dallas run defense that allowed 100-plus yards for the eighth time this season.
  1. Eagles corners Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher held Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant to one catch in the first half and just 73 yards off four grabs. Most of that came with the game out of hand. Philly's sticky secondary put Tony Romo in hot water against an Eagles defense that piled up four sacks and five quarterback hits.
  1. Eagles players told FOX's Troy Aikman that they felt well-conditioned for the short week and certain of getting away with a stripped-down game plan by tiring Dallas out. It worked. The Cowboys looked gassed by the end of the first quarter, triggering Dez Bryant to roam up and down the sideline bellowing at Dallas defenders. The dressing down had no effect.

-- Marc Sessler

  1. Thursday night will -- fairly or unfairly - be about Colin Kaepernick, but it's difficult to take away anything from Seattle's defense, which is the best in football once again (why did we think things would be any different?). Richard Sherman is one of the most intelligent cornerbacks to play the game. His preparation on both of his picks shined so much more than his athleticism. Oh, and that pass rush. There are probably three quarterbacks in football who could negate the Seahawks' power up front, and one of them (Russell Wilson) already plays in Seattle.
  1. This is an unsatisfying consolation prize for the 49ers, but having Aaron Lynch and Chris Borland on an already talented young defense bodes so well for the future. This team is good in the best division in football. It's hard to imagine how they'd be thought of in a different place and at a different time.
  1. As fantastic as Bruce Arians and the Cardinals have been, it's hard to imagine them mustering the firepower to hold off a Seattle team that can beat you in so many ways. How many different, near perfect blitz packages did San Francisco draw up on Thursday that were beat by smart check downs and available tight ends? The only thing we've wondered is how valuable it might be to save Marshawn Lynch a little for the stretch run.
  1. No team with the Niners' level of talent should have fewer than 100 net passing yards heading into the fourth quarter. We have a feeling that some of the play calling and protections will be questioned just as feverishly as Kaepernick's reaction to it. On several occasions Thursday, the 49ers made protection changes before the snap -- at home -- that were blown. What is a quarterback to do with four defenders in his face?
  1. Where do the 49ers go from here? After the game, CEO Jed York tweeted that the 49ers' performance was unacceptable. With as many rumors as there have been floating around the head coaching position, how does this impact any decisions moving forward?

-- Conor Orr

The latest Around The NFL Podcast previews the Week 13 games and reacts to the news of RGIII's benching in D.C. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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