Entering the final quarter of the season, the time has come when statements are made in the NFL.
Week 13 offered a variety of them.
"We're still best in our division and second-best in the AFC!"
The Indianapolis Colts said that with their 28-25 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Missing so many key players, the Colts figured to struggle against their AFC South rival, which always manages to play them tough. This was yet another close one, but the Colts proved that even when they're short-handed, they're good enough to find a way to win.
As long as Peyton Manning is at quarterback and has most of his highly talented pass-catchers, the Colts have a chance to win every game they play. Manning threw four touchdown passes, two to Dallas Clark. The Colts have command of their division and are clearly the second-best team in the AFC after New England. The Colts and Patriots remain on a collision course for the conference title game.
"We know how to be a consistently strong team!"
Earlier this season, the Seahawks had been schizophrenic, alternately looking good and awful. Since their Nov. 4 overtime loss at Cleveland, they have collected themselves on both sides of the ball.
Credit the Eagles for playing well enough to push an opponent to the brink for the second week in a row. They had no business beating the Seahawks, but it was up to Seattle to make certain that it didn't happen. Linebacker Lofa Tatupu did exactly that by intercepting a third pass from A.J. Feeley at the Seattle 4-yard line with 23 seconds left. Once again, Feeley did his share to help make the Eagles competitive, but he also hurt them badly, throwing four interceptions.
Matt Hasselbeck had a strong game, throwing two touchdowns, and Shaun Alexander and Maurice Morris were impressive in rushing for a combined 129 yards and two scores.
"Move aside, because we're coming through!"
The Minnesota Vikings said that with their 42-10 pounding of the Detroit Lions. They were, in fact, speaking directly to the Lions, whose free fall has reached four consecutive losses. Meanwhile, the Vikings have won three in a row to improve to 6-6, same as the Lions. But these NFC North teams clearly are headed in different directions.
The Vikings demonstrated that they should be taken seriously as a postseason contender by winning their previous two games with their best offensive player, running back Adrian Peterson, out with a knee injury. With Peterson back, the Vikings are even more dangerous. He ran for 116 yards and two touchdowns against the Lions.
Equally impressive was the play of quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, who threw for 204 yards and a pair of scores. Although he was intercepted, Jackson showed he is rounding into a consistently reliable starter.
It didn't help the Lions that they lost receiver Roy Williams, linebacker Boss Bailey, and cornerback Fernando Bryant to injuries. But they had little chance once the Vikings opened a big lead early and gave the Lions, who virtually ignore their running game anyway, an easy excuse to be one-dimensional.
"We can win without our starting quarterback!"
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers said that with their 27-23 victory over the New Orleans Saints. It looked as if the Bucs might have been sunk without Jeff Garcia, who was unable to play because of a sore back. Garcia was the primary reason Tampa Bay had won seven of its first eleven games on the way to first place in the NFC South.
His replacement, Luke McCown, had performed well in the preseason, but that was a long time ago. When McCown got the nod against the Saints, he proved his summer success was no fluke. He threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns, and had an interception. He did some of his most impressive work on the winning drive, when he connected with tight end Jerramy Stevens with 17 seconds left for a 6-yard TD.
Earnest Graham, another backup-turned-starter, contributed 106 rushing yards and a touchdown. Good depth is a defining quality of good teams, and Tampa Bay has it.
The Saints have been extremely inconsistent, but looked as if they could give the Bucs a run through the final weeks of the season. Not anymore.
"We're still the best team in one of the NFL's weakest divisions!"
The San Diego Chargers said that with their 24-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chargers won their second game in a row and at 7-5, they have a record that would make them a wild-card contender in any other division in the AFC but is good enough to give them a commanding lead in the West.
LaDainian Tomlinson was his dominant self, rushing for 177 yards and two touchdowns. It was a good thing, because inconsistent QB Philip Rivers was back to looking like a quarterback still in search of his playing identity. He completed only 10 of 21 passes for 157 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.
Rivers also had considerable help from a defense that had eight sacks and forced four turnovers against the woeful Chiefs, who suffered their fifth loss in a row.
"Our quarterback can still make enough plays for us to win!"
For most of the Chicago game, Manning certainly didn't do a whole lot to win back his team's confidence. He threw his second pass of the game to Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, he lost a fumble, and threw another interception in the end zone. Still, Manning did recover well enough to lead the Giants on a pair of touchdown marches.
At 8-4, the Giants are in excellent shape for a wild-card playoff spot, but questions will continue to linger about whether their quarterback can do what is necessary to give them a chance to make it beyond one game.
"Don't count us out yet! (Part I)"
Saying it was all because their dominant defensive tackle, Albert Haynesworth, was back in the lineup after missing three games with a hamstring injury is probably an overstatement. But it didn't hurt.
Another key factor was Vince Young throwing for 248 yards and two touchdowns, along with an interception. Young also ran for 44 yards to complement the solid rushing day for which LenDale White and Chris Brown combined for 106 yards.
At 7-5, the Titans remain in solid position for a wild-card spot, but they can't afford another slump.
"Don't count us out yet! (Part II)"
A loss would have been a serious blow and the Cards came close to losing this one, as Derek Anderson put a ball in the hands of Kellen Winslow on the final play for what looked like an apparent force-out touchdown. The officials, however, ruled that it wasn't.
The Cardinals wound up finishing the game without their top two receivers -- Anquan Boldin, who left in the third quarter with a foot injury, and Larry Fitzgerald, who was inactive with a groin injury. The good news for Arizona was that Edgerrin James ran for 114 yards, his second-best game of the season.
At 7-5, the Browns remain in the thick of the wild-card race but can't afford any more slips against the four other non-winning teams left on their schedule.
"Don't count us out yet! (Part III)"
It was a highly emotional and, at times, bizarre day at FedEx Field. The game was the first since the death of Washington safety Sean Taylor, and the Redskins honored his memory in a variety of ways. The most notable was their "missing man" defense to start the game, when they intentionally went with 10 players and the Bills responded with a 22-yard run by Fred Jackson.
Joe Gibbs also helped the Bills' cause tremendously by drawing a 15-yard penalty for calling a timeout twice in a row to try and ice Bills kicker Rian Lindell in the final seconds of the game. That turned a 51-yard field goal attempt into a 36-yarder that Lindell made for the winning points. A coach doesn't need Gibbs' Hall-of-Fame credentials to know that that should never happen.
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