The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks made it to Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey with the luxury of home-field advantage. Now they both have to worry about winning their divisions. In Seattle's case, the Seahawks have an uphill battle just to make the playoffs.
Denver's loss in St. Louis was a result that no one saw coming. New England had the far tougher schedule on paper than the Broncos in the battle for the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but the Patriots rolled on Indianapolis on Sunday night while Denver lost. Now the Broncos are a game behind the Patriots and the Patriots have the tiebreaker.
Denver still has a trip to Kansas City on the schedule, where the 7-3 Chiefs now have a share of first place in the AFC West. New England is not only 8-2, but they have wins over the other three current division leaders in the AFC: Denver, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. The Patriots are now able to win big road games when Tom Brady is not even at his best.
Seattle, meanwhile, is three games back in the NFC West. They will probably have to head out on the road if they even make the playoffs. The Seahawks are 2-3 on the road and simply don't look like a dominant team on either side of the ball. Kansas City dispatched Seattle despite losing the turnover battle 2-0. The Chiefs have looked like a better team than the Seahawks for more than a month, and showed it Sunday.
Here's what else we learned in Week 11:
- The Pats trampled the Colts' run defense for 234 yards and six touchdowns in the playoffs last year. They had the same game plan Sunday, pushing the Colts defense around with a physical tone set on the first drive. Gray, on the practice squad a month ago, became the first New England player with at least 100 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a regular-season game since Tony Collins in 1983. He churned out tough yardage between the tackles and consistently moved the chains without a single negative run among his 38 totes. The Pats have scored 144 points in their last three meetings with the Colts.
- The Patriots' defense, on the other hand, suddenly looks stout. They shut down the Broncos' ground attack in Week 9 and held Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson to four yards on 14 carries. For those scoring at home, Gray had nearly asmanyrushingtouchdowns (four) Sunday night as Richardson has (five) in 25 games with the Colts. Gray was signed as a street free agent. Richardson was acquired for a first-round draft pick.
- The loss was costly for Indianapolis. Tight end Dwayne Allen and Ahmad Bradshaw were both ruled out with ankle injuries. Bradshaw was sent for X-rays, which is especially concerning considering his long history of foot problems.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Give the Falcons credit: They could have folded after Cam Newton led the Panthers on a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives, turning a 16-3 Atlanta lead into a 17-16 deficit. But Matt Ryan led the Falcons back down the field, got the go-ahead field goal from Matt Bryant -- and then held on defense with the help of Graham Gano, who missed a 46-yard kick and subsequently had a 63-yard attempt blocked as time expired.
- Cam Newton's down season continues. The Panthers quarterback threw two more interceptions and has now tied a franchise record with picks in seven straight games. He does deserve credit for bring the Panthers back to life with back-to-back touchdown drives late. His go-ahead 47-yard scoring pass to Philly Brown was a reminder of how good he can be.
- Steven Jackson is reaching the end of the line. The former Rams star was held to 41 yards on 17 carries, with no run going more than five yards. His old burst is gone.
-- Dan Hanzus
- After a week of getting torched, Marc Trestman compiled a good offensive game plan. The Bears executed a ton of quick screens and throws early that got the ball out of Jay Cutler's hand. This strategy led to Chicago's big receivers getting deep for shots later. Trestman still made some curious game calls -- he managed the end of the first half awfully and on fourth-and-goal early in the third quarter he called a wide run for Cutler from an empty set. (Why? Who knows.)
- Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery absolutely dominated. The duo chewed up YAC, breaking tackles on quick screens and out-jumped shorter corners with ease. Jeffery gobbled up 11 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown, while Marshall grabbed seven passes for 90 yards and twoscores. It appeared that Cutler was playing "Where's Josh Robinson?" for most of the game, picking on the Vikes' 5-foot-10 cornerback.
- Teddy Bridgewater had possibly his worst pro start. He was hesitant and didn't stretch the field at all. He finished 18 for 28 passing for 168 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Against one of the worst secondaries in the NFL, that the Vikings didn't even attempt to threaten down field is an indictment of the offense and its quarterback. In the first half, the Vikings had 122 total yards of offense, 48 came on a fake punt and Bridgewater had just 39 yards passing.
-- Kevin Patra
- The Texans promoted Ryan Mallett to spark their sinking season. So far, so good. Tom Brady's former backup looked comfortable running Bill O'Brien scheme, using his big arm to complete 20 of 30 passes for 211 yards with twotouchdowns and one pick. Despite a handful of off-kilter lobs, Mallett did a better job than Ryan Fitzpatrick of pushing the ball downfield while keeping Cleveland on its heels with a rash of quick passes out of the no-huddle. It's just one start, but the Texans are an easier watch with Mallett at the wheel.
- Mallet's first NFL touchdown pass went to -- you guessed it -- J.J. Watt. The defensive terror flipped sides to haul in a 2-yard, over-the-shoulder strike from the quarterback to draw first blood for Houston. The score marked Watt's fourth touchdown of the year, the most in a season by any defensive lineman since 1948. On defense, Watt caused a Brian Hoyer fumble, notched a sack and recovered a second fumble. Watt also drew flags on back-to-back drives for hitting Browns punter Spencer Lanning. The second penalty led to a Cleveland touchdown, the lone black eye on Watt's otherwise dominant afternoon.
- Outside of that lone Browns score, Cleveland's offense spent the afternoon in a coma. Hoyer struggled with poor decisions, missed open targets and aimed too many throws at ghosts. He was intercepted after Miles Austin lost a fourth-quarter pass, but we counted another three throws that should have been picked. Finishing three-of-15 on third downs, the Browns lacked rhythm from the first whistle and couldn't get out of their own way. This looked nothing like the mistake-free team that wiped out the Bengals10 days ago.
-- Marc Sessler
- The Chiefs are tied for first place in the AFC West at 7-3. Who saw that coming after their 2-3 start? Jamaal Charles was the best player on the field Sunday, exploding for 178 yards from scrimmage with twotouchdowns. Seattle's stout rush defense made a few key stops in short yardage, but overall they just didn't look the same without Brandon Mebane. Charles made a lot of noise with runs up the gut.
- Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense remains too reliant on improvised plays. This could have been a blowout if not for Wilson's incredible escapes from Kansas City's constant pressure. Seattle is struggling to come up with throws for Wilson in rhythm, and he missed too many throws when they were there.
- Seattle's pass rush didn't have a single QB hit or sack. We call that a "Gholston." That stat is largely game-dependent because Alex Smith only had 16 passes, and they were mostly short. But the vaunted Seahawks defensive line isn't making a big difference anymore.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- With the Browns falling to the Texans, the Bengals are back on top in the tightly contested AFC North. Dalton showed no side effects from one of the worst games in recent memory, generating the best single-game passer rating (143.9) of his career after turning in the worst (2.0) a week ago. He was aided by A.J. Green's first 100-yard game in two months, a promising sign for the stretch run. Cincinnati's season is back on track after going off the rails with just two wins in the previous seven weeks.
- The Saints' season-long haze was perfectly encapsulated by a complete defensive breakdown on Jeremy Hill's 62-yard run that gave the Bengals a free field goal with only one second left in the first half. The defense can't get a stop when needed, and the offense doesn't live up to its immense potential.
- A Bengals defense that ranked 31st against the run limited a red-hot Mark Ingram to 2.9 yards per run on 23 carries. Although Ingram had put together three straight 100-yard games, his big-play ability has been noticeably missing since suffering a shoulder injury early in the Week 9 win over the Panthers.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Aldon Smith is a difference maker. The premier pass rusher returned from his nine-game suspension and caused the Giants, who were already a man down due to Justin Pugh's quad injury, to attempt some uncomfortable adjustments. At one point, Smith was triple-teamed by the entire right side of the offensive line. He played 50 snaps, by an unofficial count.
- Eli Manning was back to his old ways. He had not had a multiple interception game since the second week of the season, but in the team's most important game to date this season, he tossed five. FIVE. Odell Beckham's emergence was enough to hold teams at bay for a few weeks, but we could be seeing the re-emergence of a quarterback that is simply too turnover-prone to move this offense significantly.
- Speaking of Beckham, he is too much fun to watch. And Manning made no qualms about targeting him on nearly every passing play in the second half. There was a certain stretch where Beckham got five of six targets, including three straight on a crucial fourth-quarter drive. Beckham's night was highlighted by a phenomenal grab against Perrish Cox in which he tipped the ball to himself and hauled it in on the ground in a seated position.
-- Conor Orr
- Led by a resurgent Robert Quinn and Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Aaron Donald, the Rams defense has been one of the NFL's stingiest over the past month. They gave Manning the longest afternoon of his season, sending consistent pressure, getting physical with Denver's wide receivers and making plays with 12 pass deflections and a pairof interceptions. This is not a team any contender wants to see on the schedule down the stretch.
- The Broncos' offense was handicapped by the early loss of Julius Thomas to an ankle injury (NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reports Thomas sprained his ankle and will undergo an MRI on Monday, per a source informed of the injury). Emmanuel Sanders suffered a concussion in the third quarter, stifling Manning's aerial attack. Rookie Cody Latimer was a healthy scratch, exacerbating the problem. It's not a good sign for the state of Wes Welker's career that he was limited to 28 yards on four receptions on a day in which he was needed to pick up the slack.
- The Broncoscouldn't coverKenny Britt. In his first quarter and a half with Hill at quarterback, Britt generated his most yards (128) since Week 14 of the 2012 season. Hill was a clear upgrade on Austin Davis, moving the chains and limiting errors. If the defense continues to dominate, that's all Hill will need to do.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Meet Mike Evans, your new frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year. The wide receiver shredded Washington for seven catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns. He's the first rookie receiver to have three consecutive games of 100 yards and at least one touchdown since Randy Moss in 1998.
- The Redskins are a deeply flawed team, and Robert Griffin III is part of the problem. The quarterback threw a killer pick six to Johnthan Banks and missed on too many throws, including two deep balls intended for DeSean Jackson. He was also sacked six times behind a very leaky line.
- Josh McCown made Lovie Smith look smart Sunday. The veteran passer hung tough in the pocket and delivered some pretty deep balls to Evans. The pair has legit chemistry that we can assume will be further explored in the season's final weeks.
-- Dan Hanzus
- It was far from pristine, but Philip Rivers and the Chargers bounced back from their pre-bye implosion against the Dolphins to hold off the NFL's most abysmal team. What kind of game was this? San Diego punter Mike Scifres felt like the runaway MVP after repeatedly pinning Oakland deep with picture-perfect boots. The Chargers, though, can't feel great about a passing attack that lacked rhythm and struggled with bouts of miscommunication against a Raiders defense that held the Bolts to 4.4 yards per play.
- Seeing his first action since Week 2, Ryan Mathewsdialed up 70 yards off a team-leading 16 attempts. The Chargers used the veteran in a committee that saw rookie Branden Oliver carry the ball for 36 yards, with many of his 13 carries coming in the red zone. San Diego's 120 yards on the ground were the team's first 70-plus yard effort since ripping off 116 against Oakland back in Week 6.
- After playing his best football in that Week 6 loss, Raiders rookie Derek Carr threw for just 172 yards and failed to move Oakland's talent-poor offense. He continues to impress with his athleticism -- eluding sacks with nimble movement in the pocket -- but Carr is being asked to do it all on a roster that lacks difference-makers at every skill position.
-- Marc Sessler
- The Cardinals no longer have the services of Carson Palmer, but they still have their fierce defense. The formidable unit didn't budge against a dangerous Lions attack, holding Matthew Stafford to just 183 yards passing (his lowest total of the season). The Lions managed just two Matt Prater field goals and were shut out in the second half.
- So far, so good for Drew Stanton, who improves to 3-1 as Arizona's starter. Bruce Arians showed some serious faith in his quarterback when he called for a pass on the 3rd-and-11 with less than three minutes to play. Stanton picked up 11 on a connection with Larry Fitzgerald, justifying his coach's trust and putting the game away.
- Jim Caldwell was too conservative on multiple fourth-and-short calls, showing a lack of trust in his own offense. When he finally went for it on fourth-and-2 midway through the fourth quarter, Stafford couldn't connect with Johnson. The Lions got too cute in going away from Joique Bell, who averaged 6.1 yards per carry on 14 rushes.
-- Dan Hanzus
- The rest of the NFC contenders have to be hoping the Packers don't seize homefield advantage for the playoffs. They have jumped out to leads of 30-3, 45-0, 38-3 and 42-0 in the four home games since Rodgers' R-E-L-A-X admonition. They have posted a 50-burger in consecutive games for the first time in their 93-year franchise history. Rodgers' touchdown-to-interception is 31:0 over his last 13 home games. The Pack's average score over the past seven games overall is 39.4 to 20.9.
- Green Bay's defense has shown gradual improvement throughout the season, cresting with Clay Matthews' move to inside linebacker the past two weeks. Julius Peppers became the first player in NFL history with at least 100 sacks and four interceptions returned for touchdowns. He has returned to Pro Bowl form after a disappointing final season with the Bears. Defensive end Mike Daniels and rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are making plays every week. Jordan Matthews' garbage-time touchdown was the first the Packers have allowed at Lambeau Field with Rodgers still in the game since Week 2.
- Mark Sanchez missed too many throws, calling to mind the majority of Nick Foles' performances this season. He was also battered by the Packers' pass rush. This was a clear step back after one of the most impressive games of his career in his first Eagles start.
-- Chris Wesseling
The latest Around The NFL Podcast recaps every Sunday game from an action-packed Week 11. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.