Bill Belichick often says the football season really starts after Thanksgiving. This Patriots season is off to a miserable start and the Broncos are feeling reborn.
Losing in overtime to the Denver Broncos 30-24 is not the end of the world for this New England team. They still own the best record in the AFC and their schedule is manageable the rest of the way. You could even argue it's not the worst thing for a playoff team to be free of the burden that comes with an undefeated regular season. Then again, this Patriots team bares little resemblance to the team that ran roughshod offensive the first half of the season.
Rob Gronkowski's right knee injury on Sunday night looked gruesome, although initial reporting indicates it might not be that serious. Gronk is the most valuable offensive player in the NFL that doesn't play quarterback. Along with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Dion Lewis, Tom Brady was without his top four receiving options as Sunday's game in the snow ended. The Patriots also lost linebacker Dont'a Hightower to injury Sunday night.
This new post-Thanksgiving season arrives with an AFC that no longer has a favorite. The Broncos look far friskier on offense with Brock Osweiler, who may have ended Peyton Manning's career Sunday night. The Bengals are a complete team. And the Patriots will be forced to adjust on the fly, which is what Belichick does best.
Here's what else we learned on Sunday:
- Whereas the Packers have lost their identity with Aaron Rodgers struggling to move the ball with consistency, the Vikings have a winning formula with Adrian Peterson and a stout defense. The NFL's rushing leader, Peterson is hitting his stride for the stretch run, clearing 100 yards from scrimmage for the fifth time in the past six games. With 158 yards on Sunday, he moved into 18th place on the all-time list, passing Corey Dillon and Hall of Famers John Riggins and O.J. Simpson. Credit Minnesota's improved blocking, allowing Peterson to limit his negative plays while churning out 127 rushing yards per game over the past five weeks.
- The Falcons are still alive in a weak NFC wild-card field, but their season is on life support after their fifth loss in six games. The one strength they could count on week-in and week-out -- the Matt Ryan-to-Julio Jones connection -- was eliminated by Xavier Rhodes on Sunday.
Although Kyle Shanahan's offense force-feeds Jones near the line of scrimmage, Ryan's aerial attack has been held back by the lack of a downfield element. Roddy White has been a non-factor all season and Leonard Hankerson was inactive, leaving Ryan with Jones and a cast of misfits in the passing game. Ryan now has 10 turnovers versus nine touchdowns in his last six games. He fell one game shy of tying the record for most consecutive starts with 250 or more yards passing (18).
- If the first-place Vikings have one overriding concern, it's that Teddy Bridgewater has taken too many hits over the past month. One of the NFL's most effective scramblers, Bridgewater must improve his timing on slides and throw-aways to protect his slight frame. On the flip side, it's encouraging that the Bridgewater-to-Kyle Rudolph connection is heating up. Freed up to run more pass routes of late, Rudolph has 159 yards on 13 receptions over the past two weeks.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Coach Hue Jackson's offense hummed Sunday. A.J. Green caught the easiest touchdown pass of his career in the first quarter and the Bengals never let up. Tyler Eifert is unstoppable, catching his 12th touchdown of the season -- his first outside the red zone (22 yards). The tight end left after suffering a stinger while recovering a fumble -- it's unclear if he would have returned if the game was close. Jackson kept a good defense off-kilter all game with well-timed screens and a balanced game plan. Andy Dalton was on fire outside of one boneheaded interception to start the second half. The Bengals' offensive line handled Aaron Donald and a stout Rams defensive line (zero sacks, one tackle for loss).
When Cincinnati's offense is rolling, it is one of the most dangerous point-creators in the NFL.
- Tavon Austin was the only player worth watching on the Rams' offense. However, the receiver did the majority of his damage on the ground. His 60-yard run on a Wildcat handoff from Todd Gurley was the only great play for the Rams all day -- he scored on a 5-yard scamper two plays later. With teams keying on Gurley, the Rams' offense is putrid and can do nothing through the air.
- The Bengals wanted to get Jeremy Hill going this week. They did. While he still tiptoes to the line too often, Hill displayed the burst that dominated the NFL down the stretch last season. Compiling several gashing runs up the middle of the Rams' defense, he finished with 16 carries for 86 yards. When Hill is driving downhill the Bengals' offensive balance is unparalleled. The running back limped off the field after suffering an ankle injury midway through the fourth quarter -- the game was out of hand.
-- Kevin Patra
- After missing last week with a concussion, Brian Hoyer entered Sunday hoping to make everyone forget about T.J. Yates. Hoyer can give thanks tonight for a Saints defense that can't blame their latest disaster on jettisoned coordinator Rob Ryan. Hoyer completed his first 11 passes -- two of them for scores -- to give Houston's signal-caller 15 touchdowns to just five picks on the year. You don't want to see him in constant passing situations, but Hoyer (21-of-27 for 205 yards at 7.6 yards per attempt) has done a better job of scanning the field than last season. Barring injury, we won't see Yates again.
- The Saints came into Week 12 with a franchise-record 300-plus yards in 30 straight games. That streak is over after the first 10 completions from Drew Brees accounted for just 43 yards. The Saints lack a trustworthy downfield element, leaving Houston to double-team Willie Snead on third-and-longs -- or just tee off on Brees, who finished with 228 yards at just 5.2 yards per throw and saw his streak of 45 games with a touchdown pass snapped. This offense is no fun to watch.
- DeAndre Hopkins leads the league in targets, but the Texans wideout was far from a one-man show on Sunday. Hoyer completed throws to nine different pass-catchers. The result was a nice performance by tight end Ryan Griffin, who pulled down four balls for 72 yards and a score.
-- Marc Sessler
- Forty-year-old Matt Hasselbeck has emerged as an inspiration to blue hairs everywhere. Looking sharper than he did against the Falcons, the wily vet upped his 2015 record to 4-0 as a starter with his best game of the year. Hasselbeck doesn't always throw lasers, but he makes up for it with creativity, smarts and his share of impressive lobs. The Colts quarterback threw a pair of beautiful strikes to Donte Moncrief before hitting T.Y. Hilton (six catches for 95 yards) on a 19-yard touchdown that put the Colts up 16-12 midway through the third quarter. He nailed Moncrief (eight catches for 114 yards) repeatedly in key situations, helping the second-year wideout to his third-best day as a pro. How good would Hasselbeck be with any semblance of a ground game?
- It was a tale of two halves for Jameis Winston, who was five years old when Hasselbeck made his NFL debut. The rookie quarterback struggled over the final two quarters against a Colts pass rush that notched five sacks to help shut out Tampa over the final 30 minutes. Still, Winston delivered another helping of fearless throws downfield to Mike Evans (five catches for 64 yards) and Vincent Jackson (four for 76 yards). Win or lose, the No. 1 overall pick is growing weekly, showing pocket patience and the DNA of a big-play arm. On pace for the highest rookie passer rating by any top pick in NFL history, Winston gives this franchise plenty of hope for tomorrow. Blame the Bucs' O-line for Sunday's second-half fade.
- Boasting the NFL's second-best ground game, Tampa used Doug Martin heavily during an impressive first half. The team trusts him to put the Bucs into a manageable spot on third down -- and let Winston take it from there. The heavy volume paid off early as Martin broke free for a 56-yard scamper before halftime to put him over 1,000 yards on the year. After 90 yards at halftime, though, Martin piled up just seven yards down the stretch.
-- Marc Sessler
- The Chargers pulled off the upset because they scored touchdowns when they got in the red zone and the Jaguars kicked field goals. The Chargers scored four touchdowns in their trips inside the Jacksonville 20. This is the joy of having Philip Rivers (four TDs, zero INTs, 300 yards) on your team.
- This game provided a pretty good peek into where we're at with the Blake Bortles experience. The Jaguars quarterback had moments where he looked like a future star -- like his pretty fourth-down touchdown strike to Julius Thomas early in the fourth quarter -- but he also made mistakes that left you scratching your head. Bortles threw an ugly interception and was flagged twice near the San Diego goal line for throwing a pass after he'd crossed the line of scrimmage; rookie mistakes from a second-year player.
- For one day at least, Thomas was worth every penny. Thomas finished the game with nine receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown, becoming the first Jaguars tight end since Kyle Brady in 2000 to have 100 yards and a touchdown in a game. In fact, Brady and Thomas are the onlyJaguars tight ends to ever pull off that somewhat pedestrian feat.
-- Dan Hanzus
- The Chiefs trailed Buffalo late in the first half Sunday, 10-0. They had already lost their best player (Justin Houston) for the day and the Bills had out-gained Kansas City 202-29. And then a Chiefs offense led by Jeremy Maclinabsolutely took over. Maclin repeatedly torched Ronald Darby on the way to 160 yards and a score. Darby also gave up a touchdown to Travis Kelce.
Maclin and the Chiefs' running game were the difference on a day when Kansas City's offense needed to carry them. Now 6-5, we like the Chiefs' chances of winning a wild-card spot.
- The Chiefs' last seven possessions in a driving rainstorm: touchdown, touchdown, missed field goal, touchdown, field goal, field goal, run out the clock. There were a lot of injuries on both sides of the ball; three Chiefs offensive linemen were hurt Sunday, including Eric Fisher. But when push came to shove, Andy Reid's offense dominated Rex Ryan's defense. Spencer Ware ran hard for 115 yards and Alex Smith ran for 35, including some key first downs.
- Ryan and his coaches upstairs could not have botched their replay challenges more. They went 0 of 2, and chose not to challenge two massive plays that should have gone their way. Chris Hogan made an obvious catch that would have kept their final drive alive, but the officials made an awful call, ruling it an incompletion. Rex made it worse by not challenging.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- You won't hear any talk about Ryan Fitzpatrick's job security this week. Fitzmagic was back in Jersey after a performance that included four touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 118.9 passer rating. We're not convinced Todd Bowles was ready to jump on the GenoCoaster, but this game should buy Fitzpatrick considerable rope going forward.
- Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes will have nightmares about Brandon Marshall this week. Marshall used his size and quickness to get position on Grimes all day en route to hauling in nine passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Marshall has had his ups and downs this season, but his production is undeniable. When he's on, the Jets can be dangerous.
-- Dan Hanzus
- Marcus Mariota led a nine-play touchdown drive to stake the Titans to a 21-17 lead with four minutes remaining. Derek Carr answered with a nine-play drive of his own, aided by B.W. Webb's defensive holding penalty on fourth down that gave the Raiders a new set of downs deep in Tennessee territory. Two plays later, Carr stood strong in the face of pressure and lofted a 12-yard touchdown to Roberts. Carr finished the afternoon with 330 yards, three touchdowns and a 120.3 passer rating despite going nearly 20 minutes in the second half without a completion. He's now on pace for 4,211 yards, 35 touchdowns and just nine interceptions in one of the most impressive second-year breakout seasons this century.
- Mariota had a chance for a game-tying one-minute drill, but was intercepted after a 27-yard pass to Delanie Walker brought the Titans to midfield. Although the errant pass landed amongst a trio of Raiders defenders, Kendall Wright stopped his route and Dorial Green-Beckham turned toward the sideline rather than the middle of the field. Judging from DGB's rookie-season tape, it's fair to wonder if the interception was on him. After the game, Wright said the last interception "is on me." Wright said he was knocked off his route.
- The difference in weapons for the two promising young quarterbacks was stark. Whereas Carr's underwhelming rookie season was the direct result of the league's slowest wide receiver corps, he now has a trio of productive receivers in Roberts, Michael Crabtree and rookie sensation Amari Cooper. On pace for 89 catches, 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns, Crabtree will cash in next offseason if the Raiders allow him to reach the open market. With 115 yards on seven receptions, Cooper has already broken James Jett's franchise rookie record with 851 receiving yards.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Ladies and gentlemen, the Redskins are in first place. In a game that -- if nothing else -- showed off a budding top-five offensive line, Washington got up early thanks to three interceptions. The nice thing about its offense is that it can play with a lead more often than not, regardless of whether or not the defense folds. This hasn't been the case all year, but the more work Matt Jones gets, the more comfortable Washington should be with using him down the stretch. In the meantime, Alfred Morris has been patient and effective. Washington left the Giants with roughly 20 seconds and a full field ahead of them to stymie New York's chance at a comeback win.
- Odell Beckhamdid it again -- my goodness did he do it again. Every time he makes a spectacular play, it will immediately be billed as the catch of the decade due to his reputation, but is it ever deserved? Fault the Redskins all you want for leaving him in single coverage, but no defender was stopping Beckham from diving full extension with 5:04 left in the fourth quarter to haul in that pass. He landed perfectly parallel to the pylon as only Beckham could.
- The Giants' wildly inconsistent play is often met with understandable vitriol from its fan base and, from the rest of the league, a sort of recurring condescension that takes away from their two Super Bowl victories over the last decade. We're here to argue why they are the best team to be in the hunt down the stretch. It seems like so many of their games were like this one today: bumbling, yes, but also theatric and heart-pumping. Eli Manning is hilariously fearless, which produces multiple interceptions, but also transcendent football moments.
-- Conor Orr
- Give the 49ers credit. After piling up nearly 36 points per game over their last three tilts, the Cardinals were made to look human on Sunday. Facing an active front seven, quarterback Carson Palmer threw for just 97 yards in the first half while Arizona's banged-up cast of runners were a liability the entire way. Niners coordinator Eric Mangini overcame a flood of penalties to keep it close and shut down the passing lanes. Palmer's 48-yard strike to John Brown and his 34-yarder to speedy J.J. Nelson -- setting up Palmer's game-sealing touchdown scamper -- were among the few memorable plays from an offense that has thrilled fans all season. We can overreact to Sunday's less-than-pretty performance, but from another angle, the Cardinals won this game with a 14-play, 85-yard march that chewed 7:57 off the clock. That marks their longest drive all year.
- Blaine Gabbert continues to operate as an upgrade over Colin Kaepernick. After generating just three points in the first half, Gabbert came out of the break to lead San Francisco on a 77-yard touchdown march capped by his eight-yard scoring strike to Vance McDonald. The former Jaguars flameout hit passes of 48, 41, 20, 18, 17 and 16 yards over the final 30 minutes. That's progress! Gabbert showed newfound poise outside the pocket, but it was distressing to see San Francisco finish 0-for-9 on third downs. Averaging 8.8 yards per throw, though, puts the "Gabbert Zone" jokes back in bubble wrap.
- A painful day for Arizona's backfield: Both Chris Johnson (knee) and Andre Ellington (foot) left for the locker room in the second half. Neither returned. It's fair to ask if Johnson is slowing down. After rushing for 348 yards at 5.9 yards per carry in October, the artist formerly known as CJ2K was held to just 3.0 yards per rush in November. Johnson lacked punch again on Sunday with just 17 yards off 12 carries. Keep in mind that Arizona averaged 2.4 yards per tote on Sunday after the Seahawks amassed 255 yards at 5.8 yards per tote just seven days ago. We could see plenty of rookie David Johnson down the stretch.
-- Marc Sessler
- This back-and-forth contest with postseason implications was one of the most exciting games of the season, highlighted by a wacky fourth quarter that began with a Steelers fumble recovery correctly overturned on replay. From there, Richard Sherman got away with a pushoff on an easy interception. Lawrence Timmons drew an unnecessary roughness penalty for pushing Wilson before the quarterback stepped out of bounds. All Pro tight end Jimmy Graham was carted off with what appears to be a serious right leg injury. Jermaine Kearse capped that drive with a touchdown, staking Seattle to a 26-21 lead. Ben Roethlisberger answered three plays later with a vintage improvisational highlight pass, hitting Markus Wheaton in-stride for a 69-yard score to go ahead 27-26.
Wilson answered that touchdown with a 30-yard strike to Doug Baldwin, regaining a 32-27 lead with under four minutes remaining. Overcoming the NFL's infamous "catch" rule which negated a 27-yard Wheaton reception, Roethlisberger drove to the doorstep of the end zone. Faced with a 4th-and-3 decision -- roughly equivalent to the 2-point conversion situations of which Pittsburgh is so fond -- Mike Tomlin opted for the field goal and a 2-point deficit. It was a surprising move for a coach who insisted at halftime that, "We're not going to live in our fears. We're going to live in our hopes."
Those hopes were dashed when Wilson converted a 3rd-and-9, hitting Baldwin at the sticks for a tackle-breaking 80-yard catch-and-run -- the Seahawks' longest play of the season. Down 39-30 with two minutes remaining, Roethlisberger was sent to the locker room for a concussion evaluation, undercutting whatever slims chances remained for a comeback.
- Although both pass defenses left a lot to be desired, Wilson and Roethlisberger deserve credit for a magnificent quarterback exhibition. After starting last week's game 12 of 13, Wilson authored one of his finest in-pocket performances this week, recording the second-most passing yards (345) of his career to go with the five scores. With Graham set to undergo season-ending surgery, Seattle will need Wilson's lights-out play to continue.
- Roethlisberger continues to lead the NFL's most lethal downfield attack, unleashing a trio of pass plays over 40 yards against a defense that had allowed only two such plays all season. Despite missing four games, Roethlisberger easily leads the NFL with 13 plays over 40 yards. With Antonio Brown drawing Sherman and Martavis Bryant attracting extra attention, Markus Wheaton went bonkers, hauling in nine passes for 201 yards and a touchdown. One of the NFL's true enigmas, Wheaton shattered his previous career high by 104 yards. With matchups versus the suddenly surging Colts, at the AFC North-leadings Bengals and home against the AFC West-leading Broncos over the next three weeks, the Steelers will be crossing their fingers on Roethlisberger's concussion tests.
-- Chris Wesseling
- In retrospect, it was a lot to ask of Brock Osweiler to -- in only his second start -- loosen the stiff Patriots' secondary on a frigid snowy night in Denver. But the backup turned the heat on late, leading a feverish fourth-quarter comeback after a slow start and staking his claim for the starting job in Denver. Osweiler didn't light up the stat sheet (23/42, 270 yards, TD, INT), but he moved the ball in the second half, distributed to his key playmakers when necessary and made throws few quarterbacks, especially Peyton Manning, could make in that weather.
Of course, he was aided greatly by his skill players. Emmanuel Sanders was on the receiving end of some big Brock throw and finished with six receptions for 113 yards. C.J. Anderson woke up from his season-long slump to pound the Pats' front seven (15 rush, 113 yards, 2 TDs) and ice the game with a 48-yard burner down the left sideline.
- Breaking: Tom Brady is not a human being, and the Patriots' offense is a flawless machine. Brady's one-minute drill at the end of the fourth quarter was a masterwork, even without considering that his weapons were as nameless as New England's shadowy ball boys. The Patriots legend took his tattered offense -- read: Scott Chandler and Chris Harper -- 51 yards down the field in 69 seconds just to set up a Stephen Gostkowski's 47-yard game-tying field goal attempt on snowy footing -- not to mention that New England nearly got burned on a confusing injury timeout that stopped, and then started the clock with the Patriots unaware. Is it the least bit surprising that Brady could pull this off? No. Is it thrilling each and every time he does it? You bet. (NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino said the clock was administered correctly).
- The hits keep coming for the Patriots. With Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola already sidelined, Brady's boys couldn't afford any more casualties, especially to either of their remaining skill players. One of those vital pieces, Rob Gronkowski, went down Sunday night with a right knee injury in the fourth quarter and was carted off the field. Devastated by injuries, New England came into the game with only three receivers and three tight ends, but Brady was able to move the ball thanks in large part to the space and coverage Gronk commanded. Initial tests on Gronk's knee rule out a serious injury, NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported, per a source informed of the results. However if Gronkowski is out for a considerable amount of time, there's no telling how Brady and the Patriots will rebound.
-- Jeremy Bergman