With the Steelers mired in a 2013 tailspin to 2-6 and facing the unfortunate prospects of salary-cap hell in the future, it was easy to pile on Ben Roethlisberger and crew. Last week, reports of a possible trade of the two-time Super Bowl champion took over the football world. On Sunday, Roethlisberger did his best to prove why those are bogus and why the Steelers might not yet be done.
At one point the Steelers, like their NFC counterpart Giants, were 0-6. After winning four of their past five -- including a 37-27 victory against Detroit in Week 11 -- Pittsburgh is creeping on the AFC North as well. Roethlisberger and Co. are knotted up with the Browns and Ravens and 2½ games back of the Bengals. They're also just a game-and-a-half behind the still-wild-card-leading Jets.
You look at the schedule and there is a lot still possible for Pittsburgh, especially if the Steelers play the way they did on Sunday. Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and the Lions offense lit their defense up in the first half, but an impressive performance by Roethlisberger before halftime set up the Steelers for a victory.
It almost felt, well, personal.
Roethlisberger spent all week refuting the rumors off the field. He didn't waste any time pointing out exactly why the Steelers aren't going to move him anytime soon, tossing a pair of touchdowns to Antonio Brown in the first 12 minutes of action. He saved two more for the fourth quarter, helping the Steelers storm back and then salt the game away.
This is a deeply flawed team in Pittsburgh. There are lots of problems. But they've got the offensive weapons to put up points (Le'veon Bell's return has been huge for the run game), a defensive mastermind in Dick LeBeau (even if he's aging) and a schedule (four division games left) to make up ground.
There's a wide-open spot in the AFC, with the No. 6 seed begging for someone in the .500-or-so flotsam to get hot and steal a playoff spot.
Don't sleep on the suddenly motivated Steelers making a move.
Meanwhile, in the NFC, the Giants look like playoff zombies. You can't kill them, so please stop trying. Winners of four straight, they've gotten fortunate with their schedule: they just beat the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers and previously shut down Terrelle Pryor, Matt Barkley and Josh Freeman.
I don't buy that they're good, per se, because they haven't looked great, though Sunday was the best Eli Manning has appeared thus far this season. He completed 25 of 35 passes and though he threw one boneheaded pick, he looked to be on the same page with his receivers. Andre Brown is making a major impact in the running game out of the gates. Jason Pierre-Paul might finally be healthy.
If all those things continue trending the right way, the Giants could be the NFC version of the Steelers. The parallels are interesting, too. Both have quarterbacks from the 2004 NFL Draft, both have two Super Bowl rings in recent years, both started out poorly and now both rallied themselves into the middle of the playoff race.
The Giants have a tougher run of things because there is no weak wild-card action to prey on. But with a pair of games against Washington and a matchup against Dallas, they could be primed to make a move, even if the Eagles actually are a trustworthy division winner.
Wow. Tom Brady looks EXACTLY like Dexter on that SNF promo: pic.twitter.com/oS3V2G0b4j— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) November 18, 2013
Denver is 9-1 now and the Pats will either be 8-2 or 7-3 depending on what happens in Charlotte on Monday. It's a critical game for the AFC race, it's a matchup of the top two teams in the conference and, most importantly, it's the Wes Welker Bowl.
Welker will return to New England for the first time since leaving for Denver this offseason in free agency. But he might not be able to play: the Broncos wideout was treated for concussion symptoms on Sunday night during the Broncos victory.
He'll need to clear the appropriate tests to get on the field and you can bet that'll be a major source of hype this coming week. If Welker is unavailable to play as a result of the injury, it would be a pretty big blow for the Broncos and for the rivalry in general.
It'd also be ironic since Danny Amendola -- thought to be a much more fragile receiver -- would be likely to play.
That Really Escalated Quickly
The Texans are in a full-blown spiral. At the end of the game, veterans Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson were involved in a heated altercation on the sideline with Johnson storming away and heading into the locker room.
Johnson, as you'll recall, accrued four touchdowns the last two weeks with Case Keenum under center. Keenum, who is a much better vertical option than Schaub, was benched by Gary Kubiak (and, I presume, benched from the press box via telephone, which is really awkward) which led to Schaub entering the game, which led to this blowup.
Asked if he was happy, Johnson said he is "under contract" which sounds like thinly-veiled code for "no I'm not [bleep]ing happy" to me.
Winning cures everything and the Texans aren't doing any of that right now. No one's window ever really closes but they're staring at a situation where suddenly some sort of drastic changes look necessary. Considered a decent Super Bowl favorite before the season, they just lost to the Raiders -- at home no less -- and had two of their most notable players involved in a sideline spat.
A really bad season somehow got worse on Sunday.
Let's hold off on calling the Chiefs "frauds" for now. They didn't look great against the Broncos and were clearly the lesser team. Their pass rush didn't get home and that's a big problem. Sacking Peyton Manning zero times is going to mean a zero percent chance of winning most of the time.
But a bigger problem might be the lack of points.
And the lack of points stems from the Chiefs having eight drives that went for less than 10 yards each (ugh) and nine drives that featured five plays or fewer.
Two drives, in particular, stand out to me. One, the fourth drive that was actually just a one-play debacle.
It began in the Broncos' red zone after the Chiefs recovered a fumble. They immediately gave the ball back to Denver by fumbling themselves, which means instead of picking up free points they opened up punt-punt-punt-fumble. You can't pass up opportunities like that and expect to beat Peyton Manning.
Likewise, the field goal that Andy Reid kicked on the next-to-last drive before halftime shouldn't have been kicked I get you want to take the points but you're up against Peyton F. Manning here. You don't worry about the three -- get seven or make the Broncos go 99 yards.
It's pretty frustrating.
They were down 20-14 with 13 minutes remaining and the 49ers defense stiffened up, keeping New Orleans out of the red zone. A trio of Garrett Hartley field goals were enough to push New Orleans ahead.
They were also bailed out by a controversial call against Ahmad Brooks. He nearly took Brees' head off ...
Look at Drew Brees freaking neck here. Surprised he wasn't decapitated: pic.twitter.com/9txnM6mSrt— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) November 18, 2013
And Brooks was flagged for going after Brees' head. Watch the play live or watch the replay and you can pretty clearly understand why the ref threw the flag.
But the reality is Brooks never hit Brees' head. It was actually a really good tackle. Unfortunately for the 49ers, it went from a fumble that the Saints recovered close to midfield to a 15-yard penalty and a free first down. It changed the game. (Quick rant: Player safety is awesome, but this is the problem when you emphasize to refs that they need to be protective with flags and don't offer review options.)
It also changed the way the NFC might play out. San Francisco is now fighting for a wild-card spot. And the Saints are in a great spot to lock up the NFC South. They have multiple games against the Panthers and four of their last six games on the road, but they also have four games in their last six going down in domes.
Thanks to away matchups against the Falcons and Rams, the Saints get to play on their preferred track for much of the remaining season. That's a huge edge as they battle the Seahawks for homefield, which should ultimately decide who reps the NFC in New York come February.
First NFL team to alternate wins and losses in 10 games.
He won't get it because the Seahawks are good at other facets of the game. But Russell Wilson deserves some MVP love. He's been playing lights out despite a banged-up offensive line and a dearth of receivers. There was no better example of what he does than a pair of passes on Sunday.
Baldwin makes a great play on the ball but let's be clear: that's a laser-stuffed teardrop that Wilson winged to the end zone. It's not just these sort of throws that make him so important to the Seahawks. You look at his numbers and they're not overwhelmingly large like Peyton Manning's.
Sunday was a perfect example of how efficient Wilson is though. Thirteen of 18 for 230 yards? That's a ridic 12-plus yards per attempt, bringing Wilson's season YPA to 8.59.
Dude is a point guard on the football field. It's easy to point out that Seattle's stacked on defense but Wilson deserves more credit for elevating this offense. With Percy Harvin back and his offensive line healthy we might see an offensive explosion similar to last year.
Then you'll be hearing a lot more about Wilson in the MVP talk.
On the other side of things are the Redskins. They are not stacked on defense and they're dealing with a second-year quarterback in Robert Griffin III who simply can't improve the entire roster by himself, especially when he's not healthy.
Jason La Canfora's discussed before what Griffin's unhappiness could mean for Mike Shanahan. And his comments after Sunday's loss won't help things -- Griffin basically said the Redskins were outcoached by Chip Kelly and the Eagles.
"They did a good job of scheming us up," Griffin said. "They kind of knew what was coming before it was coming and that was disheartening. But like I told the guys, regardless of what's going on out there, we're the players and we have to make the plays work, and we just weren't doing that in the first half."
Two things really pop out when it comes to this situation. One, there's not just smoke with Shanahan's seat getting warmer. The Redskins are 3-7 and not making a playoff run this year. That division stinks but one more loss and they're probably eliminated as a contender; it's going to take 8-8 to win. We hope.
And two, is it possible the Redskins wish they had kept their draft picks? Giving the Rams a 2013 pick for the rights to Griffin was easy after a playoff berth. Handing over a top-10 pick -- which is what the Redskins are trending toward right now -- in 2014 would be absolutely brutal.