Week 15: AFC getting clearer
John Clayton [ARCHIVE]
ESPN.com
December 17, 2012
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The 2012 season has been marked by close games. That wasn't the case Sunday.

In a season in which outcomes of eight points or less have been commonplace, only two games fit that description Sunday. The Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24 in overtime and the Green Bay Packers beat the Chicago Bears 21-13 in a game that didn't appear to be as close as the score.

Two more teams clinched division titles. The Packers clinched the NFC North. The Houston Texans clinched the AFC South. Despite an embarrassing loss to the Denver Broncos, the Baltimore Ravens clinched a playoff spot.

Thus, the AFC playoff picture became clearer. The Texans, Patriots and Broncos are division winners and battling for the top two seeds and a bye. The Ravens are in but haven't wrapped up the AFC North. The Colts needed a Cincinnati loss to make the playoffs, but they are all but there. The last spot pretty much comes down to who wins the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh next Sunday in Heinz Field.

In the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons have the NFC South and are close to the No. 1 seed. The 49ers and Seahawks are in great position for playoff spots. The Washington Redskins moved a tiebreaker ahead in the NFC East, but it's still a three-way tie with the Giants and Cowboys. The Minnesota Vikings moved into the last wild-card spot temporarily, but the Cowboys, Bears and Giants have the same records.

Here is what else stood out in Week 15.

1. Peaking at the right time: The Falcons needed a statement game. Despite having the best record in the NFC, the lack of respect for the Falcons carried to an extreme when they dropped to No. 5 in ESPN.com's Power Rankings. For what it's worth, I still voted them No. 1. Sunday's 34-0 victory over the New York Giants was just what they needed. At 12-2 and close to locking up home-field advantage, maybe the Falcons will get some respect now.

The Falcons looked like a No. 1 seed Sunday, dominating on offense, defense and special teams. Matt Ryan completed 23-of-28 for 270 yards and three touchdowns. The defense made three key stops on fourth downs.

"Those fourth-down stops are like turnovers,'' Falcons coach Mike Smith said.

Gone is the panic from last week, when the Falcons lost to the Carolina Panthers. "Smitty teaches us all the time it's how you respond in those situations,'' Ryan said.

The Broncos won their ninth consecutive game, and their margin of victory during that span is more than 14 points a game. Per normal, the Broncos started slowly, but they blew out Baltimore 34-17. At 11-3, they still have hopes of getting a bye week in the playoffs.

"We try to get better every week,'' Broncos coach John Fox said. "We're not measuring ourselves now. We need to measure ourselves at the end to be the best. Right now, our guys have responded very well to just keep improving every week.''

The key to Denver's victory was its ability to run the ball. Sure, the Ravens didn't have Ray Lewis and were down to backups and special-teams players at inside linebacker. But having Knowshon Moreno rush for 118 yards on 22 carries was huge. The Broncos had balance on the road against a playoff-caliber team. Peyton Manning had to throw only 28 passes. The Broncos had 45 rushing plays.

"It was all set up by the run game,'' Manning said.

The third hot team is the Packers. The key for Green Bay against the Bears was the return of linebacker Clay Matthews, who had been out with a hamstring injury.

"With Clay on the field, we're a different team,'' Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.

Matthews had two sacks, four tackles for a loss and two additional hits on the quarterback. His return made it easier for the young starters on the defense to play better.

2. Teams in free fall: The Ravens thought they had problems last week after losing back-to-back games to the Steelers and Redskins. As an overreaction, the organization fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and gave quarterback coach Jim Cardwell the chance to call offensive plays for the first time in the NFL.

In Sunday's loss to Denver, the Ravens looked like an offense with a rookie playcaller. They started the game with a fumble and four three-and-outs. It took them until the middle of the second quarter to get a first down. The most embarrassing play came in the final seconds of the second quarter. Caldwell called for a a pass near the sideline from the Denver 4-yard line with 30 seconds left in the half. Chris Harris stepped in front of Anquan Boldin and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown.

"That's one of our plays that you kind of get a flat and a fade," QB Joe Flacco said. "It's kind of like going up and clocking the ball. It's kind of like calling a timeout in that situation because it's one of those things that, you know, you catch it and get out of bounds, you catch it in the end zone or you throw it away."

Flacco didn't attribute any of the problems to Caldwell's play calling: "I think it's a matter of us going out there and not doing some of the simple things right early on, and it kind of took us awhile to get into that groove that is really needed to be successful."

Flacco completed 20 of 40 passes for 254 yards, but the Ravens were so far behind that Ray Rice had only 12 carries. The Ravens made mistakes on defense as well. Safety Ed Reed called the game an embarrassment. "I felt it was like Christmas and not for our side," Reed said. "We were in a giving mood." Still, the Ravens lead the AFC North.

Speaking of teams on the decline, what can you say about the Bears? Their loss to Green Bay put them on the outside of the NFC playoff picture. They've lost five of their past six games. They are collapsing. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall broke down emotionally in the postgame media conference. Quarterback Jay Cutler wasn't a factor. He had 107 net passing yards. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery had three offensive pass interference penalties, canceling out three catches for 44 yards.

"Everybody involved on offense should be held accountable, even if that means jobs," Marshall said. "It's been this way all year. There are no excuses. We still have two games left. There's still hope, but at the same time we need to be held accountable."

3. Different feel for Texans: The Texans had a business-like approach to Sunday's 29-17, AFC South-clinching victory over the Colts. Coming off an embarrassing, Monday night loss to the New England Patriots, the Texans had their best week of practice and wore down the young Colts.

Last year, the Texans were just happy to win the AFC South, the first division title in franchise history. They clinched with their starting quarterback, Matt Schaub, out with a Lisfranc foot injury.

"This wasn't as exciting as it was last year," wide receiver Andre Johnson said....
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