NFL season changes in a day . again - NBC Sports

NFL season changes in a day . again
49ers, Broncos, Seahawks among teams that made statements about postseason potential in Week 15
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Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning's season has been a remarkable display of consistency. Not just with the winning streak, but he has 11 straight games with a passer rating of at least 90.0, which is tied for the third longest single-season streak in NFL history.
December 18, 2012, 5:12 pm

Coaches and players in the NFL love to say they take things "one game at a time." It is the same with the media and fans. More than ever we are seeing a league that changes dramatically from one week to the next, and the art of overreacting to everything has never been more in vogue. You are only as good as your latest game.

It indeed was "Statement Sunday" in the NFL during Week 15, but if you were expecting playoff-caliber football, you were disappointed. Most teams just blew their opponent out, with the average final score being 31.7 to 13.0 in Week 15. A total of 13 games were decided by more than seven points, which is tied for the second most in a week in NFL history, according to Elias.

The Patriots fell behind 31-3 at home - their largest home deficit under Bill Belichick - before rallying to tie, only to see Colin Kaepernick lead just the third game-winning drive in Foxboro since 2001. Now the Patriots are 10-4 and that "Super Bowl favorite" will likely be the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs.

The Texans will be at home in the playoffs after winning the AFC South. They soundly took care of the Colts with one of J.J. Watt's more dominant performances. The top seed is still likely for them.

The Giants, one week after scoring 52 points, were shut out 34-0 in Atlanta by the "soft" Falcons. Matt Ryan dominated the quarterback battle against Eli Manning in a game that was over by halftime. New York is just the fourth team ever to be shut out a week after scoring at least 50 points.

The Saints, one week after allowing 52 points, shut out Tampa Bay 41-0 in New Orleans. It was their first shut out since 1995. Speaking of a shut out, the Arizona Cardinals avenged their 58-0 loss to Seattle last week with a 38-10 win over Detroit, who was a team that played 12 out of 13 games this season that were within one score in the fourth quarter (11 decided by 1-8 points).

San Diego dropped 34 points in Pittsburgh last week, but was almost shut out at home to the Carolina Panthers in a 31-7 loss. Yes, Norv Turner must go. Meanwhile, Andy Reid watched his team literally fumble a game away to the Bengals in a 34-13 loss on Thursday night.

Robert Griffin III may not be black enough for ESPN's Rob Parker, but Kirk Cousins is good enough to throw for the fourth most yards (329) by a rookie quarterback in his first start in a 38-21 win at Cleveland. The 329 passing yards are a season-high for the team. Washington has won five in a row after starting 3-6 and coach Mike Shanahan saying they were ready to evaluate for next year.

Sure, not everything was drastically different in Week 15.

Peyton Manning beat Baltimore for the ninth straight time, and earned Denver's ninth straight win this year. Adrian Peterson continues to run wild, rushing for a record 1,313 yards in his last eight games alone. Jay Cutler still can't solve Green Bay's defense. Seattle dropped 50 points on an opponent for the second consecutive week. Teams like the Chiefs and Jets continue to set offensive football back 80 years.

But there is more than enough each week to keep us guessing, and second-guessing, and rewriting every team's story to fit the latest chapter.

What will Week 16 bring?
When you look ahead to the penultimate week of the regular season, there are a few storylines that will flesh out the 2012 story.

Atlanta can clinch the NFC's top seed with a win in Detroit on Saturday night. Pittsburgh will be playing for its season at home against the Bengals. Chicago needs to stay alive with a win in Arizona. Adrian Peterson will be looking for 2,000 yards and a big win to help his Vikings reach the postseason, while Arian Foster hopes to have the bigger day in an important game for Houston.

The Colts can hit double-digit wins and clinch a playoff berth in Kansas City. Andrew Luck will likely set the record for most passing yards by a rookie in the first half of that one. The Saints and Eagles can play spoiler to the Cowboys and Redskins, respectively. Either way, we are likely headed for a Week 17 clash between those two NFC East rivals.

Two shaky teams will meet in Baltimore when the Ravens host the younger Manning brother this week. Things didn't go so well with Peyton (34-17). If this is New York's idea of getting hot for another Super Bowl run, then they might be in trouble. First, they have to actually make the playoffs, and that is in real jeopardy now.

We have looked at the lack of playoff parity this year, and that still holds true. The AFC is 99.999 percent likely to only have one new playoff team, and that is Indianapolis. Three of the division winners from last year have already repeated, and we will see what Baltimore does.

The NFC is still murky with essentially nine teams battling for six spots. The Packers are a repeat division winner, while the Falcons are the only new one. The 49ers will likely repeat, and the Giants still can too. It looks like two new playoff teams at best, and those would be two of Seattle, Washington, Dallas and Minnesota.

So we are guaranteed to have the fewest new playoff teams and division winners ever. That could make for an interesting postseason in terms of seeing rematches, but again, what do we really know about this league from week to week?

One thing is clear, two teams walked away from Week 15 as the biggest winners moving forward.

San Francisco part deux
It was a true "Game of the Year" in New England on Sunday Night Football. The San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1) thwarted the Patriots in the end, and now they must gear up for another big road test against the surging Seattle Seahawks (9-5).

Thanks to flex scheduling, we are spared the torture of Jets versus Chargers, and get to see this interesting NFC West rematch in prime time. In Week 7 it was just a 13-6 game won by San Francisco as rookie Russell Wilson struggled, and so did Alex Smith.

Now the 49ers are rolling along with the exciting Colin Kaepernick, who should have put the Smith questions to rest after the 41-point performance in New England. Meanwhile Wilson has improved, and Seattle is the third team in NFL history to score at least 50 points in consecutive weeks.

No team has done that since the 1950 New York Giants and 1950 Los Angeles Rams. Both of them abused the 1950 Baltimore Colts (1-11), an expansion team absorbed from the AAFC that disbanded after the season.

Seattle is playing with a lot of confidence right now, and could be a scary team in January. But we will get a great look at them at home in a must-win game if they want any shot at winning the NFC West.

Kaepernick and Wilson are doing a lot with both their arm and legs right now, so expect more points than last time for sure. Still, both teams will tell you they are defensive-minded, and it's not likely someone is coming back from 28 points this week. But crazier things have happened.

The 49ers have bigger goals in mind after coming up a game short last year. If they can beat New England on the road, they can win anywhere. Well, except if they're playing the Rams apparently.

Denver Broncos must be in "Super Bowl or bust" mode
Finally, the biggest winner of Week 15 is Denver. The Broncos easily took care of business in Baltimore for their ninth straight win. They are the second team in the last decade to win at least nine consecutive games by at least seven points.

The last team to do so was the 2005 Indianapolis Colts, who Peyton Manning directed to a 13-0 start. But that team fizzled out for various reasons, and Manning cannot afford another finish like that at this stage of his career.

It is Super Bowl or bust for Denver.

With San Francisco's help, the Broncos have the inside track to the No. 2 seed in the AFC now that New England is behind them. With home games against Cleveland (5-9) and Kansas City (2-12), this is practically a done deal.

Yes, things are unpredictable in the NFL, but Manning is as close to a sure thing as you get. It would be the most unlikely thing to not see him finish on an 11-game winning streak, especially now that the first-round bye is in play, as is a fifth MVP award.

Manning's season has been a remarkable display of consistency. Not just with the winning streak, but he has 11 straight games with a passer rating of at least 90.0, which is tied for the third longest single-season streak in NFL history. The five other seasons where a quarterback had at least a 10-game streak resulted in a league MVP, including Manning's 2004 season.

Manning is playing at a very high level, the skill players have cleaned up some of their fumbling issues, and the defense has improved throughout the season. The Broncos were a very shaky 8-8 team last year, but they are legitimately a Super Bowl-caliber team right now, and they must take advantage.

They have a good mix of youth and veterans, and many of their players tasted playoff success and defeat last season, knowing what it will take to beat a team like New England, which they will likely see again.

Even though they can get the No. 2 seed, they cannot relax too much. It will likely result in a rematch in the AFC Divisional round with No. 3 New England. Having the game at home will be a relief, but it is still a tough matchup for the Broncos. Not having a pass rush up the middle to get after Tom Brady, and expecting someone like Keith Brooking to cover either tight end (Rob Gronkowski should be back) is asking for trouble. But it still beats playing in Foxboro.

The Broncos could be set on a nice revenge tour here. Beat the Patriots, then go down to Houston to avenge that loss in the AFC Championship. Then in the Super Bowl, take care of Atlanta, their other loss from early in the season.

It does sound like a real, plausible outcome to this season. But then again, you could tell me we will see a rematch of Super Bowl XL between Pittsburgh and Seattle, and I have no reason not to believe that is any less likely than the Denver scenario.

A year ago at this point the Giants had just lost 23-10 at home to the Washington Redskins (with Rex Grossman at quarterback) to drop to 7-7.

That makes predicting the Super Bowl even a week before Christmas pure lunacy these days. All teams are week to week, except for the 20 soon to become the dearly departed of the 2012 season.

Then the extreme overreaction begins: the postseason. But if we do happen to get a rematch of Super Bowl XXIV (Denver vs. San Francisco), keep in mind the impact Week 15 had on it.

A whole NFL season can change in one day. Sunday might have been one of those days.

Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to and NFL Network.

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