Thirty-six things we learned from Week 12

They're not dead yet! With just five weeks to go in the 2016 regular season, teams are making their final playoff pushes, avoiding catastrophe in the process.

*The AFC East contenders -- Buffalo and Miami -- both narrowly escaped home defeats to the Jaguars and 49ers, respectively, two teams that are slated to have top-five draft picks. In the NFC South, the Falcons and Saints went ahead early and stayed ahead against the underperforming Cardinals and Rams. The Titans steered clear of disaster in the Windy City, keeping pace with the struggling Texans. *

*The postseason picture is clearing up. Here's what we've learned from Week 12. *

  1. The Falcons have progressed from a one-man gang to a full complement of weapons in the aerial attack. Taylor Gabriel, in particular, has been the impact waiver pickup of the season. The Falcons knew they needed speed opposite Julio Jones. Enter Gabriel, who played under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland two years ago. He was electric after the catch on Sunday, using his high-end speed and lightning-quick cutting ability to dart through the Cardinals' defense on magnificent touchdowns of 35 and 25 yards. Also a sneaky deep threat, Gabriel is averaging 80.5 yards and 1.25 touchdowns per game over the past month. After exploding for 38 points against the NFL's No. 1 team in total defense, the first-place Falcons are sitting pretty with three home games in the final five weeks of the regular season.
  1. Every week, the Cardinals flash tantalizing glimpses of the talented roster that generated a franchise-record 13 victories in 2015. Every week, that talent is ultimately undone by a series of costly miscues. For most of the season, the problem has been special teams gaffes and untimely turnovers. Now 4-6-1 with three tough road contests remaining, Bruce Arians is two full games behind Jay Gruden and the Redskins for the NFC's No. 6 seed.
  1. As disappointing as Arizona's offense has been this season, David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald continue to build strong cases for the All-Pro team. Johnson (1,534) bypassed Dallas' hotshot rookie Ezekiel Elliott (1,502) for most yards from scrimmage this season. Fitzgerald comes through with spectacular catches on a weekly basis. Sunday's performance included a diving, one-handed, over-the-shoulder grab and a sliding timeout to leave one second on the clock for a 54-yard field goal entering halftime.

*-- Chris Wesseling *

  1. Don't count out the 5-6 Chargers just yet. The Chargers managed to earn a somewhat routine victory for the first time all season because of their massive advantage at quarterback. Philip Rivers connected on his 12th play over 40 yards this season, good for second in the NFL and second-most in Rivers' career. He deserves bonus points for pinpoint throws, leading to three scores, against a Texans defense that was previously undefeated and ferocious at home.
  1. How much lower is the bar for Brock Osweiler? He threw two bad interceptions (and another on a Hail Mary) and led the Texans to only 13 points, yet this still felt like one of his better games. He made some nice throws evading pressure and moved the offense relatively well, with the Texans gaining 353 yards of offense. Houston will take glimmers of hope where they can in the passing game, but it's hard to remain optimistic.
  1. This game ended on a few Hail Marys from Osweiler because Mike McCoy coaches not to lose. Faced with a fourth-and-1 in enemy territory with the chance to put the game out of reach, McCoy didn't trust his offense to pick up a yard and his punter booted it into the end zone. Next possession, McCoy wouldn't even let Rivers throw the ball to ice the game. The Chargers take their cautious fourth quarter cues from their coach.

*-- Gregg Rosenthal *

  1. Drew Brees torched the Rams' secondary, connecting on four touchdown passes. Brees joined Peyton Manning (35) as the only players in NFL history to throw 4-plus TDs in at least 30 career games. When he wasn't getting blown up byAaron Donald (leading to a fumble), Brees was a step ahead of the Rams defense. It was a masterfully called game by Sean Payton, using the Rams' aggressiveness against them with misdirection, peppered by field-stretching shots.
  1. Jared Goff took a step forward in his second start. The No. 1 overall pick looked much more comfortable with pre-snap reads and got through his progressions better than last week's slop-fest. He finished 20-of-32 passing for 214 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a fumble. When Goff is confident, he displays a good arm and precision passing. His first career touchdown pass was a 24-yard dime to Tavon Austin. Goff still has strides to make in his development, however. After putting up 167 yards in the first half, he was held to just 47 yards on eight completions in the second. Like most rookies, Goff was wild high when he rushed throws. His interception came on a forced throw into traffic. There will be ups and downs for Goff the rest of the way, but Sunday he showed the traits that made him the first pick in the draft.
  1. Mark Ingram ran with fire. The Saints back plowed through arm tackles to the tune of 146 rushing yards on 14 carries and a score. Playing with determination, Ingram added a 21-yard screen pass for a touchdown. When Ingram runs angry one defender can't bring him down. He clearly got the message after his benching a few weeks ago. Payton should ride Ingram down the stretch.

-- Kevin Patra

  1. Tied with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North, Baltimore's playoff hopes rest on a rough-and-tumble defense that made life hell for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton on Sunday. The NFL's second-ranked unit shut down passing lanes, pressured the pocket and clogged up a Bengals backfield that couldn't run the ball when it mattered. It was wild to watch the Ravens tip four of Dalton's final nine attempts before Elvis Dumervil's strip-sack of the signal-caller ended the game with a minute-plus to play. Ravens fans were also treated to a pair of strip sacks from the ageless Terrell Suggs, whose eight takedowns leads the team heading into Week 13.
  1. Call Justin Tucker what he is: Baltimore's unquestioned MVP in 2016. While Bengals kicker Mike Nugent missed his third PAT in two weeks, Tucker immaculately pegged field goals of 52, 54 and 57 yards before the break -- making him the first player in NFL history to hit three kicks of 50-plus yards in the first half of a game. Worth every penny (and more) of his four-year, $16.8 million deal, Tucker's money-in-bank leg has repeatedly saved this touchdown-averse offense. Sunday's heroics made Tucker a perfect 27-for-27 on field goals and 14-14 on PATs on the year.
  1. At 3-7-1, Cincinnati's season is over. Who to blame? Let's start with a shaky offensive line that struggled to open holes in the run game and botched a snap to Dalton that wound up in the arms of Dumervil. Sunday was another reminder that wideout A.J. Green fits the mold of Dave Dameshek's "Jenga Theory" to a tee. Without Green in the lineup, Cincy's offense lacked any semblance of a true downfield element.

-- Marc Sessler

  1. Largely ignored by the pigskin illuminati, Tampa Bay is alive and well in the NFC playoff picture after cooling off the white-hot Seahawks. Thank a suddenly frisky Bucs defense that badgered quarterback Russell Wilson with four sacks, three tackles for loss and six quarterback hits over Seattle's first 20 plays from scrimmage. Behind a line starting three rookies for the first time in team history, Wilson and the Seahawks accounted for just one yard passing in the first half and didn't convert a third down until their final drive of the game. Coming into Sunday with just one giveaway over their last five outings, Seattle turned the ball over three times and never found a way to get runner Thomas Rawls involved. Wilson ran for a season-high 80 yards, but his offense lacked balance and big-play ability behind a line that allowed an outrageous six sacks on the day.
  1. Mike Evans would be hailed as a full-fledged star if he played in New York. The Bucs wideout fried Seattle's Legion of Boom for a pair of early touchdowns, including one that came head-to-head against All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman. Evans notched 104 yards off eight grabs to become just the fourth receiver in NFL history to top 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons (joining Randy Moss, A.J. Green and John Jefferson). Evans did so without Seahawks safety Earl Thomas on the field, but that doesn't take away from a pass-catcher with three 100-yard outings over his past four starts.
  1. Tampa's resurgence traces back to an improved defense and the promising leadership and play of Jameis Winston. The Bucs passer played a sterling first half before Tampa went scoreless over their final 10 possessions to keep Seattle in the mix. Winston's worst decision came on a fourth-quarter interception at the goal line, but he also showed courage whipping the ball into tight windows to complete 21 of 28 throws for 220 yards, two scores and the pick. With 14 touchdowns and three interceptions over his past seven games, Winston looms as one of football's brightest young stars.

-- Marc Sessler

  1. Each of the previous six matchups between these two AFC East rivals had been decided by six points or fewer. This one followed the same script. As they are wont to do, the Jets pushed a slightly gimpy Tom Brady out of his comfort zone, pressuring him up the middle for three quarters. Minus All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots offense failed to manufacture a big play until passes of 23, 24 and 25 yards to Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman and Hogan again in the fourth quarter. Down 17-16 with just under three minutes remaining, Bill Belichick eschewed a 54-yard field-goal attempt on fourth-and-4. James White rewarded him with a first down, setting up Mitchell's game-winning touchdown versus the ghost of Revis.
  1. While preseason sensation A.J. Derby is playing meaningful snaps for the Broncos, the Patriots are bemoaning their lack of quality tight-end depth. A month after drawing praise from Tony Gonzalez as the greatest tight-end duo in NFL history, Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett were too injured to do much damage on Sunday. Gronkowski never returned after exiting with a back issue late in the first quarter. Bennett appeared to aggravate an ankle injury that has been dogging him since Week 5. If the dynamic tight-end duo isn't healthy, Brady's offense devolves into a methodical, dink-and-dunk horizontal attack with little margin for error.
  1. This game displayed the yin and the yang of Ryan Fitzpatrick as Todd Bowles' chosen quarterback. Fitzpatrick kept the score competitive against the AFC's dominant superpower, making a handful of big throws to Quincy Enunwa and Brandon Marshall. He was also stripped by Chris Long with the game on the line, symbolic of a Jets two-minute offense that has yet to produce a point this season. Even with the spate of untimely miscues the past two months, there's no question Fitzpatrick runs a smoother, more variable offense than raw second-year signal-caller Bryce Petty. Can Bowles sell Petty to his veteran locker room before mid-December in a lost season?

-- Chris Wesseling

  1. It won't bother the Giants (8-3) that, in the last two weeks, they were pushed back physically by the basement-dwelling Chicago Bears and winless Cleveland Browns (0-12). But should it? As we wrote a week ago, their defensive line is an agent of chaos and has been carrying them through their tougher games all season long. Interior lineman Johnathan Hankins blew up a fourth-quarter passing attempt by Josh McCown, causing a fumble that Jason Pierre-Paul picked up and ran back for a touchdown. The Giants are on their longest winning streak since 2008 -- a year after they won the Super Bowl.
  1. The Browns remain winless, but not for lack of effort. Before Pierre-Paul's long touchdown rumble? A 54-yard bomb from McCown to Terrelle Pryor, who had six catches for 131 yards. Hue Jackson was going for it on fourth down, he employed a swinging-gate type motion formation at least three times and attempted a halfback pass. The Browns are emptying the bucket emotionally each and every week and it's hard to imagine them not sneaking into the win column at some point.
  1. Most fully healthy teams don't have a player capable of matching up with Odell Beckham, but the Browns tried to do so with a banged-up Joe Haden. Haden was suckered into a foot race on Beckham's first touchdown of the night -- a 32-yard catch and run in the second quarter -- and was seen chugging behind the Pro Bowl wideout on several missed deep attempts by Eli Manning early in the game. The 2-deep zone was simply in an effort to minimize the damage but Beckham ended the game with six catches for 96 yards and a pair of scores. His second touchdown, by the way, was against a zone defense where he was matched up with Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey. Yikes.

-- Conor Orr

  1. Gary Kubiak's decision to let kicker Brandon McManus attempt a game-winning 62-yard field goal with just over a minute to go in overtime might come back to bite him come late December. McManus missed what would have been a career-high wide left, giving Kansas City a short field to execute a game-winning drive. Given the opportunity to punt deep on fourth-and-10 and settle for a tie, Kubiak instead rolled the dice, as his division-leading compatriot, Jack Del Rio, would do. The losing result drops the Broncos two games behind the Raiders and one game behind the Chiefs in the AFC West. A tie would have kept Denver and Kansas City locked at 7-3-1 and still in the immediate playoff picture. But as the sun sets on Week 12, the Broncos are on the outside looking in, replaced by the surging Dolphins in the sixth seed.
  1. The absence of Jeremy Maclin has limited Kansas City's offense in many respects, but one positive to be drawn from his hiatus is the emergence of Tyreek Hill as an offensive threat and a name-brand fireball. Hill was responsible for all three of Kansas City's touchdowns, earning them with a reception, a rush and a punt return. The rookie's breakaway speed was a known commodity -- Hill reached a max speed of 22.77 MPH on his return score, a league-best -- but Hill's catching ability and route running has improved.
  1. After a string of turnover-laden showings and sluggish offensive performances, Trevor Siemian put together his most composed game of football of the season in a big spot. Siemian recovered from a sack-heavy first half to throw three touchdowns and top 300 passing yards for the first time since Week 3. If Siemian can perform with this confidence down the stretch, Denver won't even need to look in Tony Romo's direction in the offseason.

-- Jeremy Bergman

  1. Derek Carr was at the head of the roller coaster the Oakland faithful collectively rode on Sunday. The quarterback led an offensive attack that had the Raiders ahead 24-7 at half, then suffered a gruesome right hand injury that knocked him out of the game for a series and sparked a Carolina response of 25 unanswered points. But Carr, wearing a glove on the injured hand and receiving snaps exclusively out of the shotgun, didn't wilt, leading a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 12-yard touchdown pass to Clive Walford to tie the game at 32. He captained another drive that saw two acrobatic grabs from Michael Crabtree and ended five yards short of the end zone. We went from "business as usual Raiders," to the injury-induced fall of Carr, back to another thrilling win for Oakland. The Raiders have made their living with heart-stopping victories this season. Why, on Sunday against the struggling but reigning NFC champions, should it have been any different?
  1. What an odd day for Cam Newton. He had a roughing the passer penalty go his way for the first time since 2014, and had completed just nine passes midway through the fourth for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Two passes accounted for 132 yards and both of the scores. Carolina morphed into a deep strike offense with little else to offer. It burned the Panthers in the end, when they needed just eight yards to be in Graham Gano's range for a game-tying field goal, but had a well-placed pass glance off Greg Olsen's hands on third down and Newton was sacked on fourth down by Khalil Mack.
  1. Speaking of Mack, what a game for the linebacker. He finished with six tackles, the game-sealing sack, a fumble recovery on the play and an interception he returned for a touchdown just before halftime. The pick added to the early energy the Raiders had built in their favor, cutting off an attempted screen and waltzing into the end zone with the football for his first career score. As he has been for much of his career, he was a force off the edge, causing problems for Trai Turner and Mike Remmers.

-- Nick Shook

  1. Miami was a team that leaned heavily on the run to turn things around earlier in the season, but even against the league's worst rush defense, it was all about the pass for the Dolphins on Sunday. Ryan Tannehill had perhaps his best game of the season through three and a half quarters, connecting with Dion Sims, Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker (we'll get to him later) and even Leonte Carroo before stalling out and almost surrendering a 17-point lead. It makes that hefty contract Tannehill plays under look like a better decision for a Miami team that doesn't destroy opponents, but consistently comes away a winner.
  1. It seems that with each week, Parker looks more and more like the first-round selection the Dolphins thought they were getting in 2015. For the second straight week, he made an absurd catch that was overturned upon further review. In fact, he made two of those, but the pesky sideline negated both. Parker finished with just three grabs for 64 yards and was shut out of the end zone, but he continues to trend upward and could very well be the star target Tannehill has lacked in Miami so far in his career.
  1. The Niners might be the second-worst team in the NFL, but they sure didn't play like it Sunday. They took an early lead on a Carlos Hyde touchdown reception and remained competitive throughout, even battling back from a 31-14 deficit to come up two yards short of tying the game at the end of regulation. Colin Kaepernick had one of his better games of the season, tossing three touchdowns, extending plays with his feet and almost leading a comeback drive inside the final minute of play. It wasn't enough for San Francisco, which lacked a sense of urgency when down multiple scores later in the fourth, but can serve as something to build on moving forward.

-- Nick Shook

  1. The Bills came into the game leading the NFL in rushing yards per game, yards per carry, rushing scores and 10-yard runs. With 154 rushing yards on 5.3 YPC and three rushing scores, there's a very good chance Buffalo will continue to be atop the league in those categories. After just 25 rushing yards in the first half (63 overall), LeSean McCoy's career-best 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second half reignited the offense. Give credit to the Jaguars here though: They only gave up one other 10-yard rush besides that long McCoy sprint the entire game.
  1. Welcome back, Sammy Watkins! In his first game back since being placed on injured reserve with lingering foot issues, he caught all three passes on which he was targeted on Sunday. Out of his 80 yards, 62 of them came on a perfectly-thrown deep ball by Tyrod Taylor, besting rookie corner Jalen Ramsey's solid coverage on the play. Watkins' presence at least forces opposing secondaries to be honest instead of overly fixating on Buffalo's dynamic rushing attack.
  1. Jacksonville's streak of early futility is over. Not only did the Jags score their first points on an opening drive this season, Chris Ivory's 2-yard scoring scamper was the team's first opening drive touchdown since Week 2, 2015 -- 25 games ago. Blake Bortles and Co. converted three third downs on the drive, including a 27-yard scramble by the quarterback on third-and-6 at midfield. That ended up being 27 of his career-high 81 rushing yards.

-- Max Meyer

  1. With Jay Cutler sidelined indefinitely with a shoulder injury, the Bears turned to fourth-year quarterback and perennial backup Matt Barkley. Barkley, who has also logged time with the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals, had yet to get his first career touchdown pass under his belt, until Sunday. Despite a slow first half start, Barkley finished the day 28-of-54 with 316 passing yards and three touchdowns to go with two interceptions. Had it not been for quite a few costly drops by Bears receivers throughout the afternoon -- including Josh Bellamy's end-zone drop in the final moments -- Barkley and the Bears could have easily overtaken this sleeping Titans defense.
  1. Marcus Mariota continued his stellar play against a beat up Bears defense. In his last eight games, Mariota has amassed 21 touchdowns to a mere three interceptions, per NFL research. The Titans gunslinger also boasts the franchise record for most consecutive games with two or more touchdown passes (eight). At 6-6, the Titans are just a half a game behind the Texans for the AFC South lead.
  1. Chicago trailed Tennessee by 14 at halftime, but the two-score deficit didn't halt the Bears' optimism. The Bears opted to open the second half with an onside kick, which they recovered. The Titans were held to a field goal on each of their two opening drives in the second half, while the defense surrendered 14 points in the fourth quarter.

-- Andie Hagemann

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