We woke up Sunday wondering if the Week 15 slate of games might be the worst collection of contests all season.
Instead of a rash of dead-on-arrival tilts, though, NFL fans were handed a pair of white-hot gems.
Cam Newton's last-second heroics in a thrilling 38-35 win over the New York Giants kept Carolina's perfect season alive and reminded us again why Ace Boogie deserves heavy mention as this year's MVP. In the AFC, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown for 189 yards and two touchdowns off an outrageous 16 catches as the Steelers erased a 17-point deficit to beat the Broncos34-27.
The playoffs are all about the most resilient teams -- and their star players -- peaking at the perfect time. That's Carolina and that's Pittsburgh, which means plenty of trouble for their respective conferences.
Here's what else we learned on Sunday:
- The Panthers typically close well. This was not a typical game. A blocked field goal, fumbled handoff and a streak of three-and-outs let the Giants come back in the game. Give the Giants a ton of credit for not giving up in a seemingly hopeless situation. Eli Manning often does his best work in the hurry up.
- After 28 unanswered points by the Giants, Cam Newton calmly led a game-winning field goal drive after getting the ball back with less than two minutes left. The drive featured the best of Newton: Bullets on throws up the seams, and two massive first-down runs by Newton. Cam threw for 340 yards with five scores and ran for another 100 yards. (No player has ever done that before.) Just hand him the MVP now.
- Josh Norman and Odell Beckham's matchup turned into a sideshow. Beckham was lucky not to get kicked out of the game after going after Norman after the whistle throughout the matchup. Most notably, Beckham hit Norman with a blindside helmet-to-helmet hit after one play. Norman was lucky not to be concussed and we'll be surprised if Beckham isn't fined. Norman had his share of fighting back, but Beckham got a pair of personal foul penalties. While Beckham had 76 yards and a score, keying the Giants' tying drive, he also had a crucial drop early that would have been a long touchdown.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- The Chiefs continue to get game-changing plays by their defense. In the first quarter, Tyvon Branch scooped up a Javorius Allen fumble and raced 73 yards for a touchdown. Marcus Peters ensured the win with a 90-yard pick six to complete the scoring. The Chiefs have six defensive touchdowns this season, the most in football.
- John Harbaugh made a very strange coaching decision in the first half that cost his team dearly. With the Ravens down 14-7 and facing a fourth-and-9 from their own 17, Harbaugh called for a punt fake. Sam Koch only got seven on a run up the middle. The Chiefs took over and promptly scored another touchdown. Not smart football.
- The Ravens got back in the game thanks to a Hail Mary touchdown catch by Kamar Aiken on the final play of the first half. Aiken has done a nice job filling in for Steve Smith as the team's primary wide receiver and is a bright spot in an otherwise dreary Ravens season. Aiken finished with eight catches for a career-high 128 yards and a touchdown.
- A turning point of the game occurred on Kansas City's first possession. Alex Smith scrambled toward the sideline on a third-and-long, willing to accept the fate of a K.C. punt. But Ravens defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan shoved Smith to the turf after the quarterback had already stepped out of pounds, resulting in a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness. Three plays later, Charcandrick West scored on a 38-yard touchdown run.
-- Dan Hanzus
- Brandon Weeden is in a playoff race! The perennial backup entered late in the first half after T.J. Yates suffered a torn ACL. Weeden led the Texans to all 16 of their points in a win that gives Houston the lead in the AFC South race. The quarterback made some wayward throws well off the mark, but avoided backbreaking errors and moved the offense in the fourth quarter. After early miscommunications with DeAndre Hopkins, the duo was able to connect for 36 yards on three crucial passes on the go-ahead TD drive -- a Colts pass interference also played a big part. It's the second-straight season coach Bill O'Brien was forced to play four quarterbacks (Weeden, Yates, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett). Throughout his career, Weeden has been much better in relief than as a starter. The Texans hope Hoyer (concussion) can return next week. After being cut by the Cowboys last month, Weeden did a solid job leading the Texans into playoff position.
- Matt Hasselbeck gutted out the game, but his rib injury was clearly a problem for a hamstrung Colts offense -- he left briefly in the fourth quarter after taking a massive hit. In the first half, the Colts started drives at the Texans' 42, 47 and 35-yard lines and one at their own 47. They earned 10 points out of those possessions. In the second half they did next to nothing to move the ball and ended the game with 190 total yards. The Colts can't block for Frank Gore, who averaged a piddling 2.8 yards per carry. The dink-and-dunk strategy with a banged-up quarterback isn't sustainable. The Colts didn't threaten down the field at all. Kudos to Hasselbeck, whose first-half TD pass tied Terry Bradshaw and Y.A. Tittle for the 30th in NFL history (212). The 40-year-old battled, but this offense is anemic.
- O'Brien's squad has huge holes, but the Texans are in position to win the AFC South. Despite starting the game with two turnovers on its first two drives, the Texans battled back for the pole position with two games remaining. Now with a full game lead over the Colts, Houston has games against the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars remaining. With their defense able to shut down opposing offenses, the Texans should be favorites to win the division regardless of who is under center.
-- Kevin Patra
- The Falcons kept their faint wild-card hopes alive while the Jaguars blew an opportunity to put heat on the Texans and Colts atop the AFC South. Jacksonville must win at New Orleans and Houston while hoping the Texans lose to the Titans in Week 16 and the Colts fall to the Dolphins and Titans in their final two games.
- Jones is up to 1,544 yards and seven touchdowns on 118 receptions, sailing past Roddy White's mark of 115 set in 2010. He needs just 49 yards to break his own franchise record of 1,593 receiving yards from last season. There's nothing like a date with Jacksonville's porous defense to get a struggling offense back on track.
- Blake Bortles tied Mark Brunell's franchise record by throwing a touchdown reception in 14 consecutive games. He's now trailing only Tom Brady (35) and Cam Newton (33) with 31 touchdown passes while leading the league in completions of 20 yards or more. Although his physical gifts and playmaking ability are undeniable, he has to improve his accuracy and decision making to move the chains with more consistency. He has also been guilty of too many game-changing mistakes, exemplified by an end-zone interception that was nearly returned for a pick-six just before halftime on Sunday.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Teddy Bridgewater entered Sunday with just nine touchdown passes. He accumulated nearly half that total against the Bears. Bridgewater had more touchdowns (four) than incompletions (three) and finished with a 151.3 passer rating in the most efficient game of his career. This is Adrian Peterson's offense, but a strong finish from Bridgewater can make this team a tough out in January.
- Stefon Diggs scored touchdowns on two of his three catches, a welcome sign after going six straight weeks without hitting paydirt. Diggs and Bridgewater showed great chemistry on a perfectly placed 15-yard touchdown in the first quarter. It might have been the best throw of Bridgewater's season, and Diggs ran a great route to get separation.
- Peterson suffered a left ankle injury on a 9-yard run late in the first half, sending the NFL's rushing leader to the locker room. He returned late in the third quarter and finished with 63 yards on 18 carries. Jerick McKinnon, a forgotten man this season after a promising 2014, had 86 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns.
-- Dan Hanzus
- The toothless Titans on the road aren't the stiffest test, but Sunday's performance suggests the Patriots will survive without LeGarrette Blount spearheading the backfield. Passing-down specialist James White had roughly half of Tom Brady's first-half passing yards and lost a 70-yard, second-half catch-and-run to a pass interference penalty on Keshawn Martin. Activated off the practice squad 24 hours earlier, rookie power back Joey Iosefa bulldozed a tackler on an impressive 15-yard gain and led the team with 51 rushing yards. Throw in starter Brandon Bolden, and the trio combined for 182 yards from scrimmage.
- Marcus Mariota never returned after tweaking his right knee on a second-quarter Jamie Collins sack, but the injury did not appear to be serious. Mariota was fitted for several braces and was seen jogging on the sideline shortly after the injury. The Titans might have simply exercised extreme caution after watching their offensive line struggle to keep heat off of the promising young quarterback in the first half. The pass protection will have to improve in 2016.
- New England's offense has been losing a key player every week since midseason, but the front seven on defense is as strong as it has been all season. Collins led the way with the sack and an interception. Jabaal Sheard has proven to be one of the offseason's savviest signings. Akiem Hicks has been this year's version of Akeem Ayers -- a pre-deadline trade acquisition playing a key role on a contender. This defense allowed just 58 yards, one third-down conversion and 2.0 yards per play while building a 24-3 halftime lead.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Kirk Cousins set the tone on offense from the opening whistle. The Redskins quarterback was perfect on a 10-play opening march capped by his short touchdown pass to red-hot tight end Jordan Reed. Cousins used his legs on Washington's second drive to plow through Rex Ryan's defense for a 13-yard score and a 14-0 lead that wouldn't be lost. Cousins has been up-and-down this season, but Sunday provided more evidence of a young quarterback in growth mode. Give coach Jay Gruden credit for calling an aggressive game that saw Cousins (22-of-28 passing for 319 yards and four scores) challenge Buffalo's diced-up secondary time and again. He's now thrown 15 touchdowns at home since throwing his last pick at FedEx Field.
- This game felt over with Washington up 21-0, but give Buffalo's offense credit for battling back. After throwing for just nine yards in the first half, quarterback Tyrod Taylor found Sammy Watkins on a 48-yard scoring strike that cut the lead to 28-17. Taylor completed 16-of-27 passes for 235 yards -- with 111 of those to Watkins -- but it all came too late for a Buffalo attack forced to play from behind thanks to a Rex-led defense that looked lost on Sunday. Armed with the best offense of his head-coaching career, it's frustrating and unforgivable to see Ryan's undisciplined D fold the tent time after time.
- DeSean Jackson put this game away in the third quarter with a 77-yard catch-and-dash touchdown that set the table for 153 yards off six grabs. Jackson came into Sunday with a paltry 2.9 catches per game this season, but Washington's deep threat has piled up 429 of his 488 yards over the past five weeks. This can be a dangerous attack with Reed (7/84/2) also playing the best football of his career.
-- Marc Sessler
- Browns coach Mike Pettine might want to rethink his analysis on Russell Wilson. The Seahawks quarterback ate through Cleveland's defense on Sunday, hitting one key throw after the next as Seattle scored on six of seven possessions before the kneel down, with four of those drives lasting for 10-plus plays. Wilson (21-of-30 passing for 249 and three scores) also slipped through Pettine's scheme for 46 yards on the ground and took just two sacks after Cleveland downed Blaine Gabbert nine times in Week 14. Wilson's NFL-record five straight starts with three-plus touchdown throws, zero picks and a 70-plus completion percentage is no fluke. Pettine might not see him as a top-five passer, but no quarterback west of Cam Newton is playing with more poise and fire days before Christmas.
- Johnny Manziel and the Browns put together one of their best drives of the year to open the game with a 15-play, 80-yard touchdown march that chewed nearly seven minutes off the clock. Cleveland's young quarterback played under control on the series, scanning the field and opting for a precision touchdown strike to Gary Barnidge instead of taking off with his feet. Johnny (19-of-32 passing for 161 yards with one score and a pick) went on to make some sloppy throws on Sunday and finished with just 5.0 yards per toss, but a rash of drops and constant pressure did him no favors. Johnny's escapability under pressure, live arm and ability to extend the play are something to build on. Still, Manziel needs a reliable ground game and more weapons -- and more experience -- to thrive in the NFL.
-- Marc Sessler
- This was a strange game, with the Packers leading at halftime 14-6 despite being dominated in total yardage. Give Aaron Rodgers and the Packers defense credit for playing its best football in the last 20 minutes after falling behind 20-17. They scored on their next three drives, including a 19-play, 92-yard field goal march. The Packers' defense held the Raiders scoreless in their final five drives to close the game out.
- There wasn't an easy conclusion this time in term's of coach Mike McCarthy's playcalling. Eddie Lacy was held to 23 yards on 11 carries and the Green Bay rushing attack mostly struggled until a late James Stark run barely pushed them over 100 yards as a team. The Packers' passing game was out of sync for much of the day until James Jones caught a number of contested catches in the second half. Rodgers finished with 204 yards, one score and a silly late interception on 39 throws.
- The Packers led 14-0 early because of two ugly Derek Carr interceptions. Carr's play has deteriorated over the last three weeks, but we love that he continued to stay aggressive throughout the game. His willingness to keep going deep brought his team back into the lead. He finished with 276 yards and two scores on 47 attempts.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- Hue Jackson insisted that he wasn't going to cut down the playbook on AJ McCarron, and while we'll never know if he was telling the whole truth -- the Bengals were up by 24 points early in the third quarter -- Jackson did allow his young backup to go deep. McCarron throws a nice long ball, and connected on chunk plays to both AJ Green and Marvin Jones, which kept the 49ers out of the box for a good portion of the game. It helps that Jackson may very well be the best play caller in football right now. He's well on his way to getting another shot at a head coaching gig. McCarron, on the other hand, has some happy feet to work through, but what young NFL quarterback doesn't?
- The 49ers played in a relatively quiet stadium on Sunday afternoon, that is until halftime when a resounding cacophony of boos broke out to usher the team inside the tunnel. This is a sad situation given how deep this roster was just two years ago. This is a team with good fans and a nice new stadium that just saw everything completely disintegrate in the matter of months. The truly sad part is that there are players who, unfazed by the reality of the situation, still show up and play their tails off -- running back Shaun Draughn and linebacker NaVorro Bowman among them. And good on Bowman, who was still in the middle of everything Sunday, scolding players for committing poor penalties.
- Fresh off a testy game a week ago, Vontaze Burfict was still heated but directed that energy nicely. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther dialed up a fine linebacker blitz in the first half that gave Burfict his first sack of the season. A few minutes later, he recorded his first interception of the year, which pushed the Bengals to a 21-0 halftime lead. If nothing else, he is good enough -- and the Bengals defense is good enough -- to give the Broncos a decent game next week in Prime Time.
-- Conor Orr
- Roethlisberger completed a whopping 39 passes, highlighted by a sublime 23-yard laser to Antonio Brown that put the finishing touches on a comeback from an 18-point deficit late in the first half. The matchup between the league's most explosive wide receiver corps and the stingiest trio of cornerbacks lived up to the billing, with Chris Harris primarily following Brown, Aqib Talib trailing Martavis Bryant and Bradley Roby covering Markus Wheaton.
Brown was the clear victor, beating the sticky Harris for his first two touchdowns allowed since Week 12 of the 2013 season. An easy All Pro selection as the NFL's most precise route runner and most dangerous open-field threat, Brown is up to 116 receptions, a league-leading 1,586 yards and 10 total touchdowns. He has also joined Wes Welker as the second player in history with three consecutive 110-catch seasons.
- It was a tale of two halves for Brock Osweiler, who led four consecutive touchdown drives to close out the first half. In the opening two quarters alone, he joined John Elway and Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks in franchise history with three touchdown passes and one rushing score in the same game. The Steelers' defense fixed their blown assignments in the second half, forcing six consecutive punts. Battling through an injury to his non-throwing shoulder, Osweiler couldn't move the offense and forced a game-changing interception to Ryan Shazier in the middle of the fourth quarter.
The second-half dysfunction wasn't Osweiler's alone, however. Vernon Davis and Demaryius Thomas were guilty, once again, of huge drops in important moments. The coaching staff should take their share of heat for getting outscored 33-0 in the second half during December. If Peyton Manning is capable of practicing without a setback to his injured foot, the two-game skid might result in a quarterback switch. Either way, this team is trending in the wrong direction as the postseason approaches.
-- Chris Wesseling
- If this was the Chargers' last game at Qualcomm Stadium, then they sure gave their fans a show. With rumors raging about whether the Chargers will be one of at most two teams to move to Los Angeles, Danny Woodhead's historic performance silenced the speculation. The sparkplug back scored all four touchdowns in the win, three of which were receiving. Woodhead's four-touchdown game was the first by a Charger since LaDainian Tomlinson scored four against the Raiders in 2007. Woodhead was filling in for disappointing rookie back Melvin Gordon, who left the game early with a knee injury. Donald Brown also picked up the slack and 80 yards on the ground, including a 53-yard scamper.
- One play before the Chargers' final kneel down, coach Mike McCoy pulled veterans Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd, who have spent a combined 37 years with the franchise, to a standing ovation. Rivers walked off the field in tears, not knowing if or when he'll play another game in San Diego. Safety Eric Weddle, a Chargers vet of nine years, decided to capture the moment in a mid-field selfie. For the 4-10 Chargers, a singular win doesn't mean much in the standings, but moments like that mean everything to the players and the fans who have toiled through years of uncertainty.
- The Dolphins (5-9) clinched their first losing season since 2012 with the loss. In what has been a lost campaign for Miami, there were only a few glimpses of hope for the future. Rookie running back Jay Ajayi became the first British NFL player to score a touchdown and fellow rookie wide receiver DeVante Parker had his best game as a pro with 87 yards on four catches.
-- Jeremy Bergman
- Prior to a fourth-and-1 attempt just before halftime with the Eagles trailing 17-10, DeMarco Murray had been on the field for just two snaps. In both of those plays he was a decoy. Despite that, he remains by far the most effective short yardage back on the Eagles roster, converting all 15 of his third and fourth-and-1 attempts on the season. This is information readily available to Chip Kelly and something he has to know. Despite this, with Sam Bradford under center, Ryan Mathews plodded ahead for a half yard and Philadelphia lost their best chance of making progress before the gun. If Kelly is the calculated, situational head coach he claims to be, Murray should be in the game. If not, there is little reason to have him on the roster without some kind of explanation. Is he hurt? Does a deeper rift exist than we initially thought?
- David Johnson's 47-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was reminiscent of vintage Marshawn Lynch, but it was also the perfect summation of Philadelphia's tackling on the night. The Eagles are built like a physical defense but never came close to showing it. Prior to that 47-yard run, Byron Maxwell was dragged by Darren Fells for almost 20-yards to set up Arizona's first score. Call it toughness, or attitude or maybe just a summation of parts that are not assembled correctly.
- The Eagles, stunningly, are just two wins away from the playoffs. As bad as they've been, it's very possible they beat the Redskins at home on Saturday and travel up to MetLife and play well against a very bizarre Giants team. Of course, Washington is firing on all cylinders at the moment and the Eagles do not have the kind of defensive backs on the roster that can defend DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.
-- Conor Orr