And then there were three.
What do the three outfits have in common? Stability.
New England's Bill Belichick and Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis are the two longest-tenured coaches in the league, combining for 29 years with their respective franchises. Carolina's Ron Rivera became the first coach to win back-to-back NFC South titles, rewarding the Panthers organization for sticking with him until he experienced a rare coaching epiphany early in the 2013 season.
- Cam Newton's killer fourth-quarter pick was nearly the story of this memorable showdown. Clinging to a 37-29 advantage -- after leading 37-14 -- the Panthers' passer tossed an ill-fated lob that landed in the hands of first-round Packers cornerback Damarious Randall, giving Green Bay the ball at the Carolina 22 with 3:38 to play.
The Panthers kept the Pack from scoring, though, saving an otherwise outstanding afternoon by Newton. The massive-bodied quarterback hurt Green Bay with 57 yards on the ground and scorched the Packers' secondary with a rash of deep throws. Cam paved the way for Carolina's first touchdown with a beautiful 59-yard lob to Jerricho Cotchery before setting up the team's second score with a 52-yarder to rookie Devin Funchess. Newton's subsequent 39-yard dart to Corey Brown put the Panthers up 27-7 at the half. Passing for 297 yards and three touchdowns -- and running for another -- Cam threw aggressively from wire to wire and carried Carolina on his back.
- After generating just 140 total yards against the Broncos last week, Green Bay's offense looked lost over the first two quarters. Initially favoring quick passes over daring deep throws -- just as Ian Rapoport promised -- Aaron Rodgers didn't get untracked until hitting Randall Cobb on a 53-yard touchdown strike to open the third quarter. Green Bay grew hot from there despite Rodgers facing constant heat from a Carolina pass rush that piled up five sacks and another nine hits on the signal-caller. Rodgers used pristine pocket footwork and play-extending magic to rally the Pack, but his numbers -- 376 yards through the air with four scores -- belie how disjointed this offense looked for long stretches of time.
- Eddie Lacy's underwhelming campaign continues. The Packers running back was held to just 10 yards off five totes and wound up playing a supporting role to James Starks after losing a costly first-half fumble. Starks (10/39) looks like the better runner right now, but nobody ran harder in this affair than Carolina's Jonathan Stewart.
-- Marc Sessler
- Consider this the latest reminder of how dangerous the Bills' offense can be when they have all their weapons on the field. Tyrod Taylor was healthy and effective in his return from a knee injury, LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams both went over 100 yards rushing and Sammy Watkins was the go-to receiver when Buffalo needed it. Rex Ryan teams aren't typically built around their offense, but Taylor's emergence this season has made all the difference.
- Watkins talked the talk about wanting a bigger role in the offense, then walked the walk with a career-high 168 yards on eight receptions. His touchdown -- a 44-yard catch on a perfectly thrown ball from Taylor -- showed Watkins' explosiveness, blowing away Brent Grimes in coverage. If Watkins can stay on the field, he should become one of the AFC's best wideouts.
-- Dan Hanzus
- The marquee running back matchup of Todd Gurley versus Adrian Peterson failed to live up to expectations with both defenses stacking the box. The two dynamic power/speed backs did combine for 252 yards from scrimmage on 58 touches, but the longest run of the day went for just 16 yards. Peterson fumbled on back-to-back plays and was a shoestring tackle away from breaking a long run several times. Tavon Austin had more rushing yards than Gurley entering the fourth quarter.
- Although the Vikings moved into a first-place tie with the Packers, Teddy Bridgewater's availability for next week's game at Oakland is in question. The second-year quarterback suffered a concussion after taking a vicious hit from cornerback LaMarcus Joyner. Bridgewater had given himself up by sliding on the play. Zimmer was livid about the blow, coming just a few plays after Bridgewater was hit below the knee upon releasing a pass. Prior to the injury, a scattershot Bridgewater missed a few open receivers but staked Minnesota to an 18-15 lead with a 6-yard touchdown scramble and two-point conversion in the third quarter. Veteran clipboard holder Shaun Hill struggled to move the offense the rest of the way.
- Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph should be a shoe-in for the Pro Bowl this season. He was the key in holding Gurley under the century mark for the first time in over a month, registering three tackles for loss, four more solo tackles and 0.5 sacks. Zimmer recently raved about Joseph as perhaps the best nose tackle he's ever coached.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Washington's skill position players owe Kirk Cousins a massive apology. Moments into the second half, already down 17-3, Matt Jones dropped a pass and then fumbled later on in the drive. It was the team's fifth drop of the day to that point. An earlier drop resulted in an interception and another came on a crucial third down. This has been Washington's story this season. Even if Cousins is playing good football -- he actually had New England's secondary on its heels for a time Sunday -- there is just not enough general competence around him to run the machine.
- It seems like Bill Belichick and Tom Brady had somewhere to be on Sunday. After an early first-quarter score, he hit a surprise onside kick and recovered. From there, New England leaned on LeGarrette Blount to grind the clock down. Perhaps, with the offensive line at its unhealthiest -- Sebastian Vollmer left the game with a head injury -- the Patriots were just looking to get out of this one with a win and a healthy quarterback.
- We would say that the Dion Lewis knee injury will hamper New England's offense down the stretch, but then Brandon Bolden runs for 12 yards on his first touch. Later on in the drive, he catches a touchdown pass from 20 yards out on a third and 8. New England has always been incredibly deep at running back, especially for a team that is underwhelming at best across their offensive line.
-- Conor Orr
- Marcus Mariota returned in a big way after missing two games. The rookie started out shaky, going 0 for 4 on his first two drives and threw a deep ball that should have been picked, but instead magically turned into a touchdown. From there, Mariota was nearly flawless. He picked apart the Saints with quick passes. For a rookie, Mariota makes phenomenal decisions with the football and consistently puts the ball in tight windows. His precision passing is beautiful to watch. The future is sparkling bright in Tennessee with the rookie on the field.
- Drew Brees continued his hot streak, picking up chunk yardage against a Titans defense that entered the game without corners Jason McCourty and Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Six Saints pass-catchers had gains of 14 or more yards, including gains 38, 32 and 30 yards. When given time, Brees continued his vintage play. After throwing three touchdowns and running for another this week, Brees has 11 total TDs the past two games.
- Mariota should buy Delanie Walker a thank you present. The tight end caught a woeful pass in the first quarter that should have been an easy interception. After two Saints defenders knocked each other over trying to catch it, Walker snatched the ball from midair and rumbled 61 yards for the score. Walker caught three deflected passes on the day. He is clearly Mariota's security blanket, catching seven of eight targets for 95 yards and two touchdowns.
-- Kevin Patra
- The Jets announced themselves as a surprise AFC player with a fast start built upon great defense and a bruising running game. Both those elements have been in short supply in the past month. Todd Bowles' defense allowed 436 total yards of offense and Chris Ivory -- despite two touchdown runs -- managed just 26 yards on 23 carries. In the last three games, Ivory has rushed for 84 yards on 55 carries (1.5 yards per carry). The Jets will crumble if they don't improve in these areas.
- The Jaguars will be kicking themselves for letting this game get away. Jacksonville had 1st-and-10 from the Jets' 10 trailing 21-16 with 5:56 to go. After a holding penalty pushed them back to the 20, Blake Bortles was sacked and stripped, leading to a turnover. The defense then forced a three-and-out, but Nick Marshall muffed the ensuing punt, leading to another turnover that set up a Brandon Marshall touchdown catch that put the game out of reach. Gus Bradley can't lose too many more games like this.
- Ryan Fitzpatrick didn't show any ill-effects from the thumb injury that knocked him out of last week's loss to the Raiders. The Jets quarterback worked mostly out of the shotgun and played a steady, mistake-free game. The Jets just seem to be a better, more cohesive unit with Geno Smith standing on the sideline with a towel over his shoulders.
-- Dan Hanzus
- This could be the ultimate Pyrrhic victory. The Steelers offense we expected all season showed up with 597 yards of offense, but Ben Roethlisberger's left foot injury will determine this team's fate. The Steelers are up to 5-4 after a win over an AFC wild-card competitor, but Roethlisberger was unable to put any pressure on his foot on his way to a cart. He eventually left the stadium for more tests. Landry Jones made enough plays to get the win, but this team is going nowhere without Roethlisberger.
- Antonio Brown put together the best game by a wide receiver all season with 17 catches for 284 yards. The crazy part: Brown's numbers could have been even bigger if Roethlisberger didn't miss him wide open for a potential long score early. Brown showed off the whole arsenal. He burned Oakland deep multiple times and his 57-yard catch-and-run late in regulation was an exercise in breaking ankles. He also showed off a stiff arm and made multiple tough grabs. No receiver in the NFL is this versatile.
- Even in a loss, the Raiders' offense looked more legit than ever. Now 4-4, Derek Carr overcame a rare up-and-down day from Amari Cooper to score 21 points in the second half. (Cooper still finished with 88 yards but had a few drops and mental mistakes.) Carr is so calm and reliable on third-and-long. His one interception came on an apparent miscommunication, and he took advantage of some blown coverages by a confused Steelers secondary.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- The early returns on Rob Chudzinski taking over as the play-caller are extremely encouraging for Luck and the Colts offense. The receivers got open against Denver's star-studded secondary, leaving a more confident and decisive Luck with clear reads. Luck not only threw better than he has all year, but also made key plays with his legs against a dominant defense that was inspiring comparisons to the 2000 Ravens. With shoulder and rib injuries in the rear-view mirror, Luck is a prime candidate to turn his disappointing season around in the next two months.
- Peyton Manning fell three yards and four points shy of establishing new NFL records for career passing yards and quarterback wins, respectively. His first-half performance was reminiscent of last year's playoff loss to the Colts, missing on a series of downfield throws. Although he uncorked a beautiful deep ball to hit Emmanuel Sanders in stride for a 64-yard touchdown in the third quarter, Manning's fourth-quarter interception to Darius Butler sealed the Broncos' fate. As poorly as the Colts match up with the Patriots, they have knocked off Manning's Broncos in three of the last four meetings.
- Both teams lost key defenders to injuries. After moving to 10th place on the all-time sack list by taking Luck down in the first half, DeMarcus Ware missed the entire second half with a back injury. The Colts lost safety Mike Adams and defensive end Henry Anderson -- two bright spots in an otherwise dark season -- to ankle and knee injuries, respectively. Adams' absence contributed to Owen Daniels' season-high 102 yards and a touchdown on six receptions.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Vernon Davis? Traded. Colin Kaepernick? Benched. Carlos Hyde and Reggie Bush? Injured. A prognosticator with any sense would have written the 49ers' offense off on Sunday, especially with first-round draft bust Blaine Gabbert at the helm. However, the bench did the former Jaguar good, as he put up surprisingly solid numbers -- 15-for-25, 185 yards and two touchdowns to Davis' replacement at tight end, Garrett Celek. More importantly, Gabbert looked active and aware in the pocket, qualities that Kaepernick had been lacking in recent weeks -- Gabbert capped (no pun intended) off the win with a nifty scramble. Though the Falcons didn't muster up much of a pass rush -- Gabbert wasn't sacked once -- San Francisco's improved offensive performance at home could be indicative of a late-season turnaround.
- Atlanta had a shot to put the game away late. Down four points midway through the fourth quarter, Falcons rookie linebacker Vic Beasley snagged his first interception as a pro and set up Atlanta at their own 33. Matt Ryan led a beautiful drive into the red zone, which stalled within the 10. On fourth-and goal from the one-yard line, with Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman in tow, Dan Quinn played it close to the vest and opted to kick a field goal to cut the lead to one. The rookie coach obviously thought the mortal Blaine Gabbert couldn't possibly get the 49ers another first down, but, oh, he was sorely mistaken.
- NaVorro Bowman is still playing like a bad man and led the Niners to their best defensive performance of the season. The linebacker made life uncomfortable for the overmatched Falcons' offensive line and terrorized Matt Ryan all day to the tune of seven total tackles, one sack and two tackles for loss. But the unsung hero on the day on defense was recently-activated cornerback Marcus Cromartie, who was a force on the line of scrimmage all day -- seven tackles and two tackles for loss -- despite suffering a mid-game facial laceration.
-- Jeremy Bergman
- Eli Manning's first pass of the game, an ill-fated toss to Odell Beckham running a slant, was picked off by Bucs defensive back Sterling Moore. The Giants quarterback bounced back from there to throw a pair of touchdowns before unfurling another killer pick late in the third quarter -- once again on an attempted slant route by ODB. Duplicating last week's six-touchdown outing was never a reality for Manning -- not in a driving Tampa rain -- but he kept the Bucs alive with his poor decision-making. His 5.3 yards per pass on the day landed him deep in the dreaded Gabbert Zone.
- Jameis Winston is showing weekly progress. The Bucs rookie quarterback picked his spots in the passing game on Sunday without turning the ball over. Despite scant help from his running backs, Winston showed chemistry with wideout Mike Evans, who finished with 152 yards off eight grabs. Winston (19 of 36 for 247 yards) needs to convert more field-goal drives into touchdowns, but his pass-catchers did him no favors with a handful of killer drops -- some by Evans -- in the second half. Eight games in, the rookie looks comfortable in Dirk Koetter's offense, cycling through his progressions, setting his feet before the throw and searching for targets beyond the sticks. Not known for his mobility, Winston also made this a game with his brilliant, fourth-quarter touchdown scamper, a 10-yard burst capped by the signal-caller's leap into the end zone.
- Jason Pierre-Paul's first game action of the year saw the Giants pass rusher tally a pair of tackles over a surprising 47 snaps (76 percent of New York's defensive downs). Wearing a thick, padded mitt over his surgically repaired hand, JPP looked to be in solid shape. He was flagged for an offsides penalty in the second quarter, but Pierre-Paul came closer and closer to Winston as the game edged along. He'll get his first sack of the year sooner than later.
-- Marc Sessler
- In this week's installment of Eagles running backs sharing snaps: stability! Philly won this game on the ground thanks to a balanced running attack from their dynamic duo. DeMarco Murray (18 rush, 161 total yards, TD) and Ryan Mathews (11 rush, 67 yards, TD) received comparable carries and were for the most part equally effective. The Eagles used Murray more in the pass game, a role usually reserved for Mathews, and it worked well against the Cowboys' depleted linebacking corps.
On the Eagles' game-winning drive in overtime, coach Chip Kelly trusted both of his backs with meaningful carries. Murray took the Eagles into Cowboys territory and Mathews then converted a crucial fourth-and-1 before Sam Bradford connected with Jordan Matthews for the game-winning score on the ensuing play.
- Three games into the starting job, Matt Cassel (299 yards, 3 TDs, INT) finally found his security blanket: Cole Beasley. The most unlikely of targets saved Cassel early and often while Dez Bryant was locked up in coverage. Beasley ran crisp routes and made life tough for Philadelphia's pressing corners en route to a career high in receiving yards (112) and touchdowns (2).
Not to be be outdone, Bryant came down with a highlight reel touchdown catch and went over 100 receiving yards for the first time this season.
- Darren McFadden proved why he deserved to be the lead back in Dallas all along. With another 100-plus yard game, McFadden has now averaged 111 rushing yards per game since the Cowboys' bye. He's proven to be a work horse for Cassel and the Dallas offense, which needs a consistent running game to keep opposing secondaries off the line and their receivers.
-- Jeremy Bergman