So it comes down to December and the playoff races are starting to sort out. A look at how the league appears to be sorting out entering the final month of the season -
The Patriots keep on clawing for the showdown to the Superbowl
- The Houston Texans once again played well in a loss, and the Patriots' career record at Reliant Stadium makes interesting reading - in three games against the Texans plus the Superbowl against the Panthers, the total points differential for the Patriots is plus-two. For some reason the Patriots win there but can't put anyone away there.
The Texans season is shot but Case Keenum keeps making a legitimate case for himself for 2014; it is baffling Keenum is winless so far.
The rest of the AFC East remains battling for pride
- The Dolphins won their fifth road game against the NY Jets in the last six trips to East Rutherford, NJ, and the Jets added further to the collapse of their season by benching Geno Smith for Matt Simms; benching the ostensible starter never leads to good results.
It is worth examining coach Rex Ryan here because the widespread belief entering the season was he was on the firing line, then as the Jets stayed at .500 it seemed Ryan was coaching his way to an extension, but now the Jets are in freefall. The blunt truth is Ryan has done little to justify not firing him - he is a players' coach, and thus his players lack the same level of discipline seen with quality teams (showcased by Ryan's absurd restaurant trip with his players before their loss at Buffalo); he has been overrated as a defensive coach, as one struggles to remember when his defenses legitimately stopped a good offense; by my understanding he has had a say in personnel decisions and the poor construction of the Jets roster thus labels him as one not to be trusted on personnel matters.
Meanwhile the Buffalo Bills continue falling, as they blew a winnable game at Toronto's dome against the Falcons. Up 31-24 the Bills couldn't stop the Falcons from tying the game, nor could they stop the seemingly-inevitable winning field goal by the Falcons in overtime.
The Broncos all but clinched the top AFC seed - It was the shootout everyone expected but the Chiefs proved unable to hang with the Broncos and now Peyton Manning has the AFC West all to himself for now. The Chiefs have to settle for the top wildcard seed while the Chargers have all but fallen out of any playoff possibility and their spectacular win over the Chiefs has proven the exception proving the rule of right now - the Chargers play uninspired football at a time they need more of what they produced against Kansas City.
The Colts all but wrapped up another AFC South title and the Titans continue to blow it - Reading message boards Titans fans want to fire Mike Munchak now, yet watching the Titans the problems they are having stem from the quarterbacking instability Munchak didn't have to deal with in 2011's 9-7 season. Ryan Fitzpatrick has authored more heartbreak than production, and didn't shy away from it ("I didn't play well," he said after the game); he has the talent to win games yet it isn't happening.
And making it doubly frustrating - the Titans have shown fight all season; therein lay the strongest endorsement of Mike Munchak - his players clearly are playing for him. I highly doubt the Titans wouldn't have won some of these bitter games with Jake Locker. And those who advocate firing Mike Munchak need a credible argument along the lines of above's case against Rex Ryan - and one is hard-pressed to find one here.
Houston and Jacksonville meanwhile show anew Sean Salisbury's truism - the difference between 12-4 and 4-12 is a quarterback and two or three players. The Jaguars' win at Cleveland was a surprisingly good game and showcased the Jaguars are not stiffs.
The Bengals are closing on a division title that looks more impressive than their last two - Andy Dalton appears to be getting better as a quarterback and the Bengals are showing signs of gelling and maturing, qualities needed with Baltimore not out of the playoff race yet. Even with their win over the Steelers, though, the Ravens do not look strong enough to make the playoffs, and the late run of last year is hard to replicate this year, especially given how the Ravens blew up the roster to pay Joe Flacco big bucks.
The Seahawks are - almost - division champs - The Seahawks look like NFC top-seed material easily, though the 49ers got a needed win over the Rams while the Cardinals came up short at Philadelphia. By crushing the New Orleans Saints, the Seahawks further reinforced they are effectively unbeatable at home.
The Panthers and Saints are on the NFC South collision course - The Panthers held serve against the Bucs and the Saints were thoroughly destroyed at Seattle. The two teams amazingly haven't faced each other yet and first do so next week. The Panthers now have the given how effective Cam Newton is and also with the Panthers holding a two-game winning streak in the series. The loss at Seattle may have been a fatal blow to the Saints.
The Eagles can win the NFC East - Dallas rallied to beat the Raiders but it is Philadelphia that has control of the division as they continue to get better and Nick Foles keeps showing people he is for real.
The rebirth of the Lions is one of the league's best stories - Matthew Stafford finally beat the Packers and did so despite early-game gaffes. It was the first Lions win on Thanksgiving since 2003 and reinforced how remarkable the rebirth of the Lions after 2008's perfect failure has been. Stafford's gutsiness has been displayed repeatedly but his comeback win over the Cowboys is the kind of win that makes fans out of people. It certainly rivals his 2009 comeback over the Browns as an unforgettable game.
Making it more delicious is that it furthers the fall of the Packers, the league's ultimate frontrunning fraud.
With that the NFL marches toward Week 14.