Week 14 also brought outstanding performances from a number of rookie players. We learned a little more about Bears running back Matt Forte. The Louisiana native wore short sleeves in the freezing Chicago weather Sunday, and broke Gale Sayers' team-record for most yards from scrimmage in a season. Meanwhile, Houston RB Steve Slaton ran for 120 yards, giving him 1,024 yards for the season -- eight yards short of the Texans' rookie record. Chris Johnson of Tennessee ran for 136 yards against Cleveland, giving him 1.094 for the year. This is the first time since 2001 that we've had three rookies with 1,000 yards rushing.
Arizona rookie Dominiquc Rodgers-Cromartie tied a team record with his 99-yard interception return for a TD against St. Louis. Denver rookie left tackle Ryan Clady allowed no sacks against Kansas City. Clady, charged with protecting AFC passing yards leader Jay Cutler, has allowed half a sack all season -- incredible considering he has faced some of the NFL's leading pass rushers this season, including John Abraham and Joey Porter.
The next three weeks should be fun to watch as we try to sort out the playoff scenarios. Here are some notes from Week 14:
Pittsburgh 20, Dallas 13
The opening coin flip was a big factor in this game. Pittsburgh won the toss and deferred to the second half, giving them a strong wind at their backs in the fourth quarter. The Steelers scored 17 points down the stretch to win. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger won his 49th career game -- more than any other QB through his first five seasons, moving him ahead of Otto Graham, Dan Marino and Tom Brady.
Going into this game, Dallas was behind Atlanta for the final wild-card spot in the NFC. With both teams losing, Dallas actually moved ahead of Atlanta in the tie-breakers. Dallas was without Marion Barber, who missed the game with a toe injury. His replacement, rookie Tashard Choice, ran for 88 yards -- the most by any player against the Steelers this season.
Dallas had allowed just 169 yards in the first 54:50 of the game. Pittsburgh got a field goal with 7:27 to play (it hit the right upright and bounced in), making the score 13-6. After the ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, Dallas got the ball at its own 40. Choice gained 1 yard on first down, then Tony Romo was sacked for a loss of 6. It looked like a mistake by backup left guard Cory Proctor, who was playing because of injuries to two players ahead of him on the depth chart, caused the sack. Romo completed a third-down pass short of the first down. That led to a 23-yard punt -- against the wind -- that gave Pittsburgh the ball and the wind at the Steelers' 33-yard line.
Pittsburgh then drove 67 yards on eight plays to score the tying touchdown with 2:10 left to play. On Dallas' second offensive play after that, Romo's pass intended for tight end Jason Witten was intercepted by Deshea Townsend and returned for the winning score.
The Cowboys had lots of chances in this game, but turnovers, sacks and questionable special teams play led to the loss. They most likely need to win their last three games to make the playoffs.
Arizona 34, St. Louis 10
Congratulations to the Cardinals, who can call themselves division champs for the first time since they played in St. Louis and won the NFC East in 1975 with an 11-3 mark. They will now host a home playoff game for the first time since Dec. 8, 1947 -- when they were the Chicago Cardinals. That was the 1947 NFL title game, played in Chicago's Comiskey Park. The Cardinals beat the Eagles in that game, 28-21. The contest, played on a frozen field against Philadelphia's unorthodox 5-4-2 defense, featured more big plays for touchdowns than any NFL title game or Super Bowl since. The Cardinals scored on two 70-yard runs, a 44-yard run and a 75-yard punt return.
Arizona has home games against Minnesota and Seattle, sandwiched around a road game versus New England. It may be tough to earn a first-round bye, but one more win will give the Cardinals just their second winning season since 1975. Still, Arizona must run the ball better if it is going to do anything in the postseason. The Cardinals had 65 yards Sunday against the Rams' 30th-ranked run defense.
New Orleans 29, Atlanta 25
This turned out to be one of the season's better games to watch. There were six lead changes to go along with lots of offense. The Saints and Falcons each gained 414 net yards and they combined for 54 total points. It's hard to believe Atlanta QB Matt Ryan is a rookie with just 13 career NFL starts under his belt. He has thrown 15 touchdowns with seven interceptions in leading his team to eight wins. In the third quarter, starting at his own 26, Ryan converted three third downs, overcoming two holding penalties and one false start, to lead his team on a 15-play, drive that spanned over nine minutes and put the Falcons ahead, 17-16. He did it with some no-huddle, some shotgun and some snaps under center. It could have been Peyton Manning or Tom Brady out there. But it was Matt Ryan.
That said, New Orleans won the game, because the 28th-ranked rushing offense was able to outperform the Falcons' second-ranked rushing offense. The four NFC South teams are 9-0 at home in the division. After Monday night's Bucs-Panthers game in Carolina, there are two more division games that could decide the winner of this division -- Tampa Bay at Atlanta next week and Carolina at New Orleans in Week 17.
Philadelphia 20, N.Y. Giants 14
The wind was as much a factor in this game as the potential for the Giants to be distracted by their off-field issues. Meanwhile, Donovan McNabb's wife had twins, and that did not negatively distract the Eagles quarterback. Both teams played great defense. The Giants had 211 yards of offense -- their lowest offensive total since Dec. 24, 2006.
Two plays defined this game. On the first play of the second quarter, Eli Manning had the wind at his back and threw a perfect pass to Domenik Hixon. It would have been an 85-yard TD, except Hixon -- who was replacing Plaxico Burress in the starting lineup -- dropped the ball. Secondly, the Eagles scored on a pass to Brian Westbrook that required Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce to cover the Eagles' back. The crossing route yielded a 40-yard TD that turned out to be the difference in the game.
The Giants did show signs of distraction, while the 10-day layoff after Thanksgiving seemed to help the Eagles. The Giants only had 88 yards rushing, and the Eagles won the time of possession battle by 9 minutes. The Eagles, like the Redskins last week, concentrated on stopping the run game and dared Manning to beat them. The wind and dropped passes prevented that from happening.
The Giants did clinch the NFC East title when Dallas lost, but they have yet to clinch a first-round bye.
Fred Taylor, in the first quarter Sunday against the Bears, moved past O.J. Simpson and Corey Dillon, into 16th on the NFL's all-time rushing list. … The Cleveland Browns have gone three consecutive games without scoring a TD. Ken Dorsey became the 12th quarterack to start at least one game for the Browns in the last 10 years. … The Buffalo Bills, for the second week in a row, scored just three points. … Three teams -- Buffalo, Green Bay and San Diego -- have losing records despite outscoring their opponents; conversely, Denver has won eight games and will likely win the AFC West, but the Broncos have been outscored by 20 points. … Pierre Thomas, an undrafted player when he signed with New Orleans last year, is the first Saints player to run for 100 yards this season. … The Colts became the second team in NFL history to win a least six consecutive games in five consecutive years. … Dallas' Jason Witten became the fifth tight end in history to have 60 or more catches in five consecutive seasons. Tony Gonzalez has done that in 10 consecutive seasons. … Terrell Owens, with 32 receiving yards on his 35th birthday, moved into sixth place on the NFL's all-time receiving yards list with 13,918.