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Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 14: Debunking Cam's sophomore slump

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer

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Sorting the Sunday Pile takes all of Sunday's NFL action and figures out the most important storylines for you to digest. Send your complaints, questions and comments to Will Brinson on Twitter. Pick-Six Podcast up later Monday, but go ahead and subscribe via iTunes.

Cam I Am
A lot of ink -- both virtual and real -- has been spilled this season relating to whether or not Cam Newton is actually capable of being the quarterback who lit up the NFL last season. And though the Panthers season might be lost, the last four games have proven the sophomore slump concerns to be worthless.

Newton, during that stretch, is 72-for-119 (60.5%, 9.05 yards per attempt) for 1,077 yards, eight touchdowns, no interceptions. Newton's rushed 41 times for 286 yards and three touchdowns. Yes, a 72-yard rushing touchdown helps your average and total numbers but, oh, what a 72-yard run it was:

No one's paying attention and that's fine. The Panthers aren't going to make the playoffs and have, in the best case scenario, a 7-9 record in their future. Newton hasn't been perfect, and has missed a lot of passes during the last four games. Additionally, the Panthers are only 2-2 in that time frame, so it's not like the stupid quarterback-wins statistic is helping him.

But Newton's also looked much more decisive of late and the Panthers offense is shaping up to be the dominant force that scared people heading into the year, averaging 25.5 points over that span. And, sure, you probably didn't make the fantasy playoffs after you drafted Cam, but if you did, he's helping you out nicely, posting 30-plus point games each of the last three weeks. (What? Making fantasy owners happy will go a LONG way towards keeping people quiet.)

Even winning out might not be enough to save Ron Rivera's job, but this team has a shot at ending the season on a high note, maybe climbing to 7-9 (with seven losses and an 0-7 record in one-score games) and watching Newton produce another quality season that'll end up being buried by all the complaints about his press-conference demeanor during the early part of the year.

Newton's going to end up coming close to producing the same numbers he posted as a rookie phenom in 2011. If he continues on his current pace -- which, mind you, includes some stinker games early on -- he'll finish with 3,963.1 passing yards, 19.7 touchdowns and 12.31 interceptions, along with 787.69 rushing yards and 8.62 rushing touchdowns.

That's not progression, per se, but it's certainly not the level of regression that everyone lamented for the first half of the year, especially when, at his current pace, he'd attempt nearly 40 less throws (480) than he attempted in 2012 (517). Factor in the Panthers incredible bad luck this season -- 0-7 in one-score games, one coin toss won throw 13 weeks! -- and what you have is the combination a slow start, bad luck and a sullen postgame attitude to create a "sophomore slump" that doesn't actually exist.

If Cam closes out the season playing the way he's played over the past four weeks, his 2012 season might somehow end up being better. And it's going to make Carolina a particularly attractive job if it opens up this offseason.

Just another day at the office for Adrian Peterson on Sunday, as he piled up 154 yards against the Bears. 104 of them came in the first quarter, putting him on pace for 416, but he couldn't capitalize the rest of the day. Still, he's tracking for a potentially special season, and he knows it.

AP told Peter King of Sports Illustrated that he's not just shooting for 2,000 yards, but instead glaring at Eric Dickerson's single-season NFL record of 2,105 yards. Can he pull it off? Maybe.

Peterson has 1,600 total rushing yards after Sunday's win over the Bears. At his current pace, he'll finish with 1,969 rushing yards, with an average of 123.1 yards per game. Conversely, he'd need to average 168.33 yards per game over his final three games to break Dickerson's record, which makes it seem pretty unlikely.

Until you consider the way he's run lately anyway: Peterson's now gone over 150 rushing yards in five of his last seven games. Over that span Peterson's averaged 157.29 rushing yards per game on 21.7 carries per game, good for an unholy 7.25 yards per carry.

And over his last five games, All Day's averaged 165 yards per game even. In other words, even though he's piling additional carries onto the leg he destroyed Christmas Eve, Peterson's somehow getting stronger as the season goes along.

He's a remarkable story and even though it's beyond improbable that he might end up breaking Dickerson's record, you'd be foolish to count him out.

There are many cases of teams misusing players in NFL history. Sometimes on a week-to-week basis, certain teams make mistakes in their usage of certain players. But the inability of the Bills to get C.J. Spiller involved on Sunday is absolutely perplexing.

Buffalo's struggled to use their first-round pick (AHEM) before, but against the Rams, nothing made any sense. After Buffalo took a 12-7 lead over St. Louis, they ran 13 plays. Exactly one of those went to Spiller, who logged eight touches Sunday, his lowest total in two months. Chan Gailey had, well, no explanation at all for why this happened, unless you count "Fred Jackson's turn" as a logical reason.

"It was not happening there after that first drive of the second half," Gailey said after the game. "We were trying to run the football and when it was Fred's turn, it was Fred's turn to be in there. Trying to keep them both fresh."

That makes almost less sense than not getting Spiller the ball more. Spiller, for his part, is actually being the only responsible person in Buffalo when it comes to the disaster that is managing his carries.

"Is the frustration there? Yeah. Deep down inside as a competitor, yeah, it's there," Spiller said. "But there's nothing I can do about it. So I'm not going to sit around, pout and be a little baby or a little girl or something."

On November 16, I wrote that the Bills could continue to make a playoff run if they continued to feed Spiller. Nothing has changed since then, except Chan Gailey's refusal to give his biggest playmaker the ball.

Conference Realignment
What a difference a few weeks make: after Week 7, I pointed out that the NFC was "head and shoulders above" the AFC. And I was right ... at the time. But that's not the case anymore, as the AFC's top-flight teams are, quite clearly, much better than those in the NFC.

The Falcons fell to the Panthers and looked horrible on Sunday. San Francisco struggled with Miami and hasn't been their dominant selves the last two weeks. The Packers defense is a major question mark. So is the Giants secondary. Seattle beat Arizona 58-0 ... but it's Arizona. Chicago's free-falling out of the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the AFC's top teams are rounding into shape nicely, although it's easier to say that with Houston and New England squaring off on Monday. Barring both of those teams looking sloppy, it'll be impossible to put the Falcons above any more than two AFC squads. The Broncos annihilated the Raiders Thursday and my guess is the Pats come out firing against Houston, with the Texans matching the offense to a decent degree.

Baltimore's not particularly scary these days, particularly on the road, and the Colts/Steelers/Bengals/Jets (!) aren't making the Super Bowl. But the cream of the crop in the AFC is clearly better than their counterparts in the NFC.

Yes, I Said the Jets
And I've been mentioning the Jets as a playoff sleeper for the last two weeks too! You know why? It's not because they're good. It's because their schedule is cake.

After scoring a combined 24 points in victories over the Cardinals and Jaguars, the Jets get the Titans (road), Chargers (home) and Bills (road) to close out the season. Those are three winnable games and at 6-7, Rex Ryan's team is just one game back of the Steelers and Bengals for the final wild-card spot.

Pittsburgh plays the Cowboys, Bengals and suddenly frisky Browns, while Cincinnati gets the Eagles, Steelers and suddenly not-so-frisky Ravens. Both of those teams can't lose out, of course, but it wouldn't be stunning if both Pittsburgh and Cincy went 1-2 down the stretch.

Or how about this: Cincy beats the Steelers and then loses to the Ravens. In either of those situations, all the Jets might need is to win out against a really bad trio of teams. Much weirder things have happened in this league ...

Cardinals QB Situation
Things are ... not good ... with the Cardinals right now. After starting out 4-0 to begin the season, they've now lost nine-straight games (nine) and are mathematically eliminated from the playoff race.

Arizona hasn't scored more than 20 points in a game, or won a game, since September. Their quarterback situation is such a trainwreck that Ken Whisenhunt's openly auditioning guys while doing his postgame press conference:

He's joking. I think. But if he isn't kidding, perhaps Whiz should try and find his next quarterback on Craigslist first. Or maybe Twitter:

Larry Fitzgerald will probably keep taking the high road on this one (but let's forget everyone talking about feeling sorry for him; he's the one who wanted Kevin Kolb and Michael Floyd in Arizona) but his dad didn't, calling the QB situation "pathetic" on Sunday.

When your coach is auditioning reporters, unemployed quarterbacks are tweeting about playing for you and your star player's dad is calling your team out publicly, well, it's pretty clear that your season's derailed.

Enjoy Watching Us in January
The hate directed at the (now) 11-2 Falcons is fueled by the fact that they're a quality team, but not a great team, and they'll be lucky to get out of this season with their first playoff win during the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan regime.

But you know what, Greg Hardy? At least they'll actually get a chance to get to the playoffs. Also, you just got punked by a kicker:

My favorite part about this is that Hardy was walking across the field immediately after his team had been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs swearing up and down

There's definitely cause for concern when it comes to Atlanta. They've been impossibly lucky in one-score games (unlike, ironically, the Panthers) and haven't really dominated anyone since the early part of the season.

Bears Playoffs
It's hard to fathom that, after a November 4 paddling of the Titans, the Bears were 7-1 and cruising in the NFC North because since then they're 1-4 and barely clinging to a wild-card playoff spot.

Chicago's only topped 20 points once in that span, beating the Vikings 28-10 in Week 12, combining for 44 points in their four losses to the Texans, 49ers, Seahawks and Vikings. They've got the Packers and Lions on the docket coming up, and even if you want to hand them the Cardinals game (totally fair), it's not hard to imagine a situation where they miss the postseason.

Seattle has the tiebreaker on Chicago and all of Washington, Dallas and Minnesota are within striking distance if the Bears can't win two of their final three games.

On the bright side, Brandon Marshall now holds the single-season franchise record for receptions by a Bears receiver ... after Week 13. People weren't joking when they said he was their first-ever true No. 1 wideout. That deal with Miami in the offseason's looking pretty smart. Now draft some linemen already.

Just Another Giants Weapon
David Wilson's Week 1 fumble and ensuing trip to the doghouse feels like a loooooong time ago. Wilson, a talented and explosive rookie out of Virginia Tech, ran for 100 yards on 13 carries in the Giants win over the Saints Sunday and, oh, hey he also put up over 200 kickoff return yards.

He's the first person to do that in NFL history. No big deal.

Eli Manning and Victor Cruz were big as well, but Wilson was the big story: he saved the Giants from a three-way tie with the Redskins and Cowboys up top of the NFC East. More importantly, he's giving Tom Coughlin the confidence to use him in big spots; having to rely solely on Ahmad Bradshaw isn't a palatable option for the Giants, and if Wilson can contribute down the stretch, he's going to help turn New York into a very dangerous and balanced offensive team when the playoffs come around. Sound familiar?

It's actually two GIFs this week, because, well, FAT GUY TOUCHDOWNS.


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