Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 13: Saints, Vikings make moves in crowded NFC race

The NFC developed a little bit of clarity Sunday afternoon, but even the tiniest bit of clarity in the NFL is very often but a faint signal through the noise of the playoff picture. Put more simply: Case Keenum and Drew Brees led their respective teams to crucial victories against other quality NFC opponents, establishing themselves among the cream of the crop in a very difficult conference. 

Don't get mad if you root for someone else here, because there is a lot to unpack in the NFC. But to the initial point, the Vikings and Saints both look fully capable of running the table against anyone in the conference. New Orleans manhandled the Panthers, putting enough pressure on Cam Newton, who was dealing with the absence of Greg Olsen and Ryan Kalil, to stymie the Carolina offense and hold the Panthers to 21 points.

Once again, though, it was the running game for the Saints that continued to flourish. Alvin Kamara is going to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, and he might very well win Offensive Player of the Year at the pace he's on. The rookie running back crossed the 600-yard threshold in both rushing and receiving yards on Sunday, joining Charley Taylor (1964) and Billy Sims (1980) as the only rookie running backs to do so, ever. Kamara has four games left; 2,000 scrimmage yards is on the table. 

Kamara and Mark Ingram are just terrifying at this point. They have combined for more than 200 scrimmage yards in five straight games; the running back duo is so versatile, so complementary and so difficult to stop. Kamara has this combo of physicality and elusiveness that is just so rare. 

In his last five games, Kamara has 720 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns. He's dragging Fantasy Football owners into the playoffs and he's turned the Saints into ground-attack team with ample explosion. They didn't need Drew Brees to be great again on Sunday and still won. The ceiling is the roof with this team. 

The Vikings are a delightful juxtaposition because they are not winning despite their Hall of Fame quarterback -- they are winning because their journeyman quarterback is playing at an elite level. Case Keenum has played like a top-10 quarterback -- that's a statement I can make in the year 2017 and you can't argue with it. Over the course of the full season, you cannot find nine guys who have played better than Keenum. The number might be smaller. 

Keenum is playing mistake-free football -- he went 18 for 18 between the numbers at one point Sunday and finished with just five incompletions -- and has found a groove in Pat Shurmur's system. He has a surprising amount of pocket mobility, manages to keep his eyes down the field and has continually been able to find receivers when the play breaks down.

Just a random thought I had while watching some of Keenum's play -- how would he have fared in Los Angeles if Jared Goff wasn't drafted and Sean McVay still landed there? It sure feels like his versatility (he has played in a number of different schemes) and skill set would work just fine in a system that's causing Goff to thrive right now. Another thought: How did Jeff Fisher produce the NFL's worst offense last year with both Goff and Keenum on the roster? Yeesh. 

At any rate, the Vikings are going to head into Charlotte to play the Panthers as a favorite after being an underdog against Atlanta. They didn't snuff out the Falcons, but they came kind of close. Xavier Rhodes locked down Julio Jones (two catches, 24 yards) and the Vikings held the Falcons to 102 total rushing yards. 

Minnesota probably is not going to win in a massive shootout with anyone, but that's not how this team is built. This is an elite defense that puts tons of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and has top-end talent at each level.

The Vikings are, after the Eagles lost to the Seahawks in Seattle on Sunday night, the new No. 1 seed in the NFC. The Saints are just a game back of the Eagles for the No. 2 seed and Philly gets the No. 3 seed Rams (who are also a part of this discussion; no one's ignoring them, they just bludgeoned Blaine Gabbert and the Cardinals on Sunday, which is a little less impressive) next week.

On a weekend when six of the top seven NFC teams played against each other, Minnesota and New Orleans established themselves as viable NFC contenders on equal footing with Philadelphia. This is a powerhouse conference. 

The other winners

It would be negligent to point out the Saints and Vikings victories and not also point out that they helped other teams. A week ago the Cowboys and Packers were dead in the water, essentially toast when it came to the playoffs after losing critical players (Aaron Rodgers for Green Bay, Sean Lee and Ezekiel Elliott for Dallas). Thanksgiving weekend saw brutal losses for each team. 

Fast forward to Week 13 and the top end of the conference helps change the way things are shaking out. Green Bay wants the Vikings to run away with the division, because it means beating up on other wild card teams. Atlanta and Carolina losing keeps both the Cowboys and Packers very much in the hunt. 

For Green Bay, they got just enough out of Brett Hundley (84 passing yards! 66 rushing yards! Some plays!) to win against a bad Buccaneers team at home. This is not about dominating teams, it is about beating the Bucs and Browns until Aaron Rodgers is eligible to return in Week 15. One box got checked thanks to an Aaron Jones overtime walkoff touchdown for the Packers. 

Between Jones and Jamaal Williams, the rushing attack for the Packers is going to give people some fits when they get Rodgers back. Beating the Browns is up next. They should be able to do it. 

The Cowboys have to wait an extra week to get Ezekiel Elliott back and they have two road games ahead (at Giants, at Raiders), but the good news for Dallas is they've shown in the last week they can handle Elliott's absence. Alfred Morris stormed through the Redskins on Thursday night; he should be in for big games against the Giants and Raiders if Tyron Smith is healthy and the offensive line is clicking. The Cowboys were left for dead after losing to the Chargers on Thanksgiving. They very much have life at the moment, but can't afford to make any mistakes here. 

This is not my beautiful house

How did Andy Reid get here? At one point the Chiefs were 5-0 and very much looked like the best team in all of football. They were steamrolling people. Now? They have not won a football game since Halloween. They're that pumpkin sitting on the porch that your neighbor just will not take to the trash. 

Reid tried to fix things on Sunday, giving up playcalling duties to Matt Nagy. The Chiefs responded in impressive offensive fashion, lobbing up 31 points. They managed to produce two very quick touchdowns to Travis Kelce.

I can personally attest that Alex Smith went for nearly 50 Fantasy points. He had four passing touchdowns and 70 rushing yards -- the latter on a single play, without even scoring a touchdown.

Smith also hit the insanely fast Tyreek Hill for a pair of touchdowns. Oh, and um, the Chiefs lost. They started 5-0 and are on a 1-6 nightmare streak, with their last win coming against the lowly Broncos on Oct. 30. 

If you haven't been paying attention, during that time span both the Chargers and Raiders have decided not to be terrible. In fact, the Chargers have been quite good! 

My preseason Super Bowl pick from the AFC has gone 6-2 since an 0-4 start, evening out their record to 6-6 with a cruise control win over the Browns on Sunday. The Chiefs hold the tiebreaker in a three-way scenario thanks to division record (2-1 versus 2-2 for the Raiders and Chargers), but it's hard to believe the Chiefs are favorites, even with their offensive ability.

They simply can't stop anyone. The Chargers can. And the Chargers have the offense cooking too. Philip Rivers is creeping on this MVP conversation -- if the Bolts run the table to finish 10-6 and make the playoffs, and he pours it on in terms of statistical production, he's at least going to get mentioned with the top-flight candidates. He likely won't pass Carson Wentz or Tom Brady if either guy goes out and wins 14 games, or Russell Wilson if he takes the Seahawks to a high seed virtually by himself, but he's a fringe candidate right now. 

Keenan Allen is balling out. He's the first player in NFL history with 10 catches, 100 receiving yards and a receiving touchdown in three straight games. Allen has always had the ability to be a true No. 1 wideout, and he's finally flashing it.  

The Raiders and Chiefs play next week, while the Chargers get the Redskins at home. The week after, the Chiefs and Chargers square off in Kansas City. 

We're about to get some serious separation in this division, and it couldn't come at a more interesting time. The Ravens have moved to 7-5 and have firm control of the No. 6 seed. They get the Steelers on the road next week, but close against the Browns, Colts and Bengals. They will probably win at least nine games and it would be a stunner if they won less than eight. 

Suddenly, with the Titans and Jaguars already at eight wins, the AFC West is probably only getting a single team into the playoffs, via the No. 4 seed. The Chiefs were written into that spot in a Sharpie just a month ago. Now things are much less certain.

I would make the Chargers the favorites the way they're playing now, but who knows if they can manage to press their luck down the stretch without screwing things up. We're going to know a lot about this division in the next two weeks. The Dec. 31 game between the Raiders and Chargers could be a win-or-go home situation. 

What was once a miserable division is suddenly a thriller. 

Some odd coaching decisions

Here's some fun synergy for you: former Broncos coach John Fox did an odd thing late in a game for the Bears. And his former offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who worked for him in multiple spots, did an odd thing for the Dolphins late in a game. 

Neither has anything to do with each other, and the motivation for the two plays is totally different, but I found the connective tissue kind of interesting, or at least interesting enough to lump together. 

First up is Fox, who inexplicably decided to trust a playcall he had on a field goal block from 24 yards out. 

With 1:40 left on the clock and the 49ers holding a first-and-goal, San Francisco aggressively ran Carlos Hyde up the middle. The Bears could have let him score, and gotten the ball back. Instead they tackled Hyde, then immediately called their final timeout. They tackled Hyde again on the next play, which meant the 49ers could take a knee at 50 seconds and melt the clock down to under 10 seconds before kicking a chip shot field goal.

"We talked about it, but it would have had to be done at 1:36 or 1:40, whatever it was," Fox said. "We felt good about the block we had on the potential field goal. Neither one of those are great options at the 5- and 4-yard lines."

Who feels good about a field goal block play? Just say you didn't trust your offense to go 80 yards in 1:30, or something slightly more reasonable. Robbie Gould -- in his revenge game -- buried the field goal and the 49ers won. Fox has not had a good year coaching. 

Gase's motives were perhaps ... more sinister. Going up against his old team, Gase absolutely ran up the score and absolutely stuck it to his old team. With just over 10 minutes left and the Dolphins rolling the Broncos 33-9, Gase called for an onside kick. That's not a spot for an onside kick. 

But to each his own. The Broncos believe it was personal.

Unfortunately for the Broncos, they did get embarrassed. Maybe Gase did it on purpose, with the intent of humiliating his old team and his old players. Who knows. Maybe he just wanted to take a shot at his old boss.

Gase explained it by saying he plans to keep his foot on the gas at all times. 

"It's 60 minutes. I'm not going to slow down. I don't care what the score is," Gase explained.

I'm a firm believer in the "if you don't want to get scored on, stop somebody" rule. But this feels a lot like one of those situations where you play a random kid in Madden and he's just piling it on, leaving you throwing the controller. 

What makes it a little odd is that he worked with Vance Joseph, who is probably not having the time of his life, last year. Whatever. These beefs make football way more fun. 

Suspend the big guy

I love Rob Gronkowski as much as the next guy, but the NFL absolutely has to suspend him for his dirty hit on Bills rookie cornerback Tre'Davious White. After the play, Gronk basically went WWE on the young defensive back, potentially causing a concussion. 

It was inexplicable. Gronk, for his part, apologized after the game repeatedly. But he also added that it was out of frustration, because he was not drawing flags. He says he lashed out because of emotion, but it's not OK. You can't do that to an opponent, laying on his head and dropping an elbow in a situation where the play has clearly been over for what felt like five seconds.

Bill Belichick was embarrassed enough by the move that he apologized to Sean McDermott after the game.

The NFL needs to suspend Gronk one week -- the message sent by fining him or letting him get away with the move is that it's fine to engage in dirty tactics. The fact that Gronk wasn't ejected is mind-boggling. The guys in New York handling replay are just spinning a wheel at this point and guessing. What are they looking at? Are they even bothering to examine plays in which player safety is a concern? Clearly not, because if they were, Gronk would have been immediately ejected for this flagrant behavior. 

Not circling back and suspending him in this case would be a major disappointment if the goal is, indeed, player safety. 

Touchdown celebration of the week 

Actually we're going to give the award to a pair of celebrations, because they're both cool basketball celebrations and I'm not sure which one I like more. 

The Jaguars' decision to shoot free throws was so well planned, what with the guys lining the lane and the excellent shot actually going through.

But the execution level of doing layups by the Titans is much harder from a practical standpoint, mainly because of the oblong nature of the football, which makes shooting, catching and passing all very hard! 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

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