NFL Week 16 Wrap: Nothing Could Be Finer Than To Be In Carolina

The Carolina Panthers are in first place in the NFC South, in command for a first-round bye and still have a shot at the #1 seed in the NFC, thanks to a thrilling and rain-soaked 17-13 win over the New Orleans Saints that highlighted NFL Week 16. The victory completed Carolina’s rise from their 1-3 start and it completed Cam Newton’s emergence as a top NFL quarterback.

Perhaps “top” quarterback might be too strong. Newton’s numbers for Sunday were pedestrian–13/22 for 181 yards. But we’ve seen Cam put up the Fantasy League-style stats. What we’ve been watching to see is whether he can play with efficiency in big games.

On Sunday he let Drew Brees be the one to make some costly mistakes, while Newton that hit a big pass to get his team in field goal range when they trailed 13-10, and then finished the job with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenic Hixon with 23 seconds left to win the game.

Carolina won the game in spite of the fact the New Orleans defense played well, and they ran the ball better than the Panthers. It was a game tailor-made for the veteran quarterback with a Super Bowl ring to make one or two more big plays than the up-and-coming kid, who could surely be counted on to try and force a pass at the worst team. Newton didn’t, and then he made the one or two big plays.

I reiterate that I don’t want to get carried away with Newton or any other quarterback–the defense is the first and foremost reason that Carolina wins football games and their early red zone stops where the reason they won this one. But these are the kinds of games and situations that Cam was going to have prove himself in, where it’s tough, physical and the margin for error is small. He did it, and now Carolina has put itself in great position.

Other games impacting the NFC playoff picture…

Arizona 17 Seattle 10: Is there any doubt left about how good this Cardinal defense is? They win on the road–in Seattle no less–with Carson Palmer throwing four interceptions. Arizona sacked the mobile Russell Wilson four times, knocked him down nine more and kept the ship afloat long enough for Palmer to throw a late 31-yard touchdown pass to Michael Floyd.

San Francisco 34 Atlanta 24: The score was 27-24 and the Falcons were driving with close to a minute left. Then Matt Ryan threw an interception and Navarro Bowman took it 89 yards to the house. It was another sad ending for the Falcons, as Ryan’s mistake wiped out his 341 yards of passing and a big night for Roddy White. But it was also another appropriate ending for Atlanta, who was helpless against the 49er running game, and Ryan’s costly interceptions have been a theme of this season.

Philadelphia 54 Chicago 11: Of the many things Philadelphia did well, the best was running the ball, as LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown each went over 100 yards. The fact Chicago still plays a home game to win its division in Week 17 while Philadelphia has to go on the road to do the same should be an embarrassment to any Bears fan with a conscience. Their team quit on this game, one that could have clinched the NFC North.

Dallas 24 Washington 23: Tony Romo converted 4th-and-goal at the 10 with 1:08 left, hitting Demarco Murray with the touchdown pass that won the game. It turned out to be Romo’s last act of the 2013 season, as a back injury means he’ll miss Week 17 and any potential playoff games. Washington’s Kirk Cousins missed a big showcase opportunity for himself, going just 21/36 for 197 yards against a bad defense.

NY Giants 23 Detroit 20 (OT): Detroit ran the ball very well, getting 148 yards on the ground, but they insisted on constantly throwing the ball and Matthew Stafford’s interceptions eventually cost them. The Lions’ defeat knocks them out of the playoffs and likely knocks Jim Schwartz to the unemployment line.

Games impacting the AFC playoff picture…

Pittsburgh 38 Green Bay 31: It’s odd that this game affects the AFC more than the NFC, but the losses of Chicago and Detroit meant this game didn’t affect the Packers’ chance to win the NFC North next week against the Bears. Meanwhile, the Steelers still have a longshot playoff chance because they won.

Since I live in Wisconsin, I saw this game in the late afternoon window rather than the Patriots-Ravens game, and it was a case of a good “bad” game. Neither team deserved to win. The Steelers made crucial mistakes, including letting the Packers run a kickoff back 71 yards in the final two minutes, something that nearly cost them the win. Ben Roethlisberger threw a big interception and the Pittsburgh defense blew a ten-point lead in the snow and wind against a backup quarterback.

But Green Bay was even more determined. They lost in spite of an officiating gaffe that nullified a blocked field goal and gave them a gift touchdown. They jumped offsides on a Pittsburgh field goal and turned it into a touchdown. The Packers had a false start on the Pittsburgh goal line on their last, futile chance to tie the game. And above all, their defense let Le’veon Bell run all over them, to the tune of 124 yards.

Can the Packers-Bears winner next week just get a division championship trophy, but send both the Cardinals and Saints to the playoffs (there is only room for one)? I’m only kidding on that point, because I do believe in automatic qualification for a division champ, but it underscores how poor the NFC North contenders look.

New England 41 Baltimore 7: The Ravens still can’t run the ball and Joe Flacco is still an interception machine. The Patriots just played nice, efficient football and let an easy win come to them.

Cincinnati 42 Minnesota 14: When Andy Dalton gets hot, he really lights it up. The inconsistent Bengal quarterback was locked in against a team that had been playing well. Dalton was 27/39, 348 yards and no interceptions.

Meanwhile, the Matt Cassell era in Minnesota came quickly crashing down, as he threw for just 114 yards and tossed three picks. Adrian Peterson left the game early with his bad ankle bothering him. Apparently all the Vikes needed to end this run of good play was for me to believe in them and pick them.

Denver 37 Houston 13: Peyton Manning broke the single-season NFL record for touchdown passes, as his four strikes put him to 51 and broke the previous record of 50 set by Tom Brady in the historic 16-0 run of the 2007 New England Patriots.

Beyond the history books, Peyton was big on this particular Sunday, and in a game that was 16-13 after three quarters. Manning tossed three TDs in the final quarter and finished with 400 yards on the day, with nary an interception to be found.

San Diego 26 Oakland 13: When the Chargers get Ryan Matthews going, they’re awfully tough to beat. Mathews had 99 yards, Philip Rivers was efficient and the Bolts pulled away in a game that was 10-10 at the half.

Indianapolis 23 Kansas City 7: Excellent offensive showing for the Colts in this road win. They ran for 134 yards, and Andrew Luck was 26/37 for 241 yards. Luck wasn’t spectacular, but he spread the ball around and didn’t throw any interceptions. Kansas City got rushing yards from Jamaal Charles, but Alex Smith was out of his element having to come from behind.

Buffalo 19 Miami 0: This performance from Miami was nothing short of disgraceful. They were obliterated on the ground, with the Fred Jackson/C.J. Spiller combo going for 188 yards. If you’re looking for a bright spot for the Dolphins, there is none.

And we wrap up with the three games that affect nothing…

St. Louis 23 Tampa Bay 13: By any statistical measurement, the Rams owned the trenches. Zac Stacy ran for 104 yards. Tampa Bay’s own running game went nowhere. And St. Louis sacked Mike Glennon seven times.

NY Jets 24 Cleveland 13: The Jets are another team that controlled tempo on the ground, with Chris Ivory running for 109 yards. They also got constant pressure, and while there weren’t a lot of sacks, Cleveland quarterback Jason Campbell took a lot of hits.

Tennessee 20 Jacksonville 16: Shonn Greene and Chris Johnson each had 90 yards for the Titans, Maurice Jones-Drew went nowhere for Jacksonville, and Tennessee was able to get the lead touchdown early in the fourth quarter and hang on.