As has been the Green Bay Packers' penchant, they turned what should have been a one-sided game over the Chicago Bears into a battle. A poorly-considered and badly-executed trick play off a punt return with fewer than eight minutes left in the fourth quarter made anyone with a lick of football sense wonder one simple question:
What was Packers coach Mike McCarthy thinking?
Still, the Packers looked very much like the championship team they were in 2010 during a 21-13 victory over Chicago, their eighth win in the past nine games.
While Green Bay has fallen to two teams (Niners and Giants) it could meet in the playoffs, there are two key reasons why another title run is a strong possibility.
The most obvious was James Jones, a man who has had inconsistent hands throughout his career but came up with a career-high three touchdowns against the Bears. Jones has always been infuriating, a combination of great physical gift and maddening mental yips. Earlier this season in a victory over the Bears, Jones ran a poor route that led to an Aaron Rodgers interception. The passer didn't hesitate to rip into Jones as the two came off the field. Some players may have gone into a shell after that. Jones has responded with his most consistent season, including a career-high 12 touchdowns through 14 games. Aside from Jones, Randall Cobb has become a legitimate threat, catching six passes for 115 yards on Sunday and 77 for 892 for the season.
If the Packers can get Jennings back in the groove and Nelson back to health in the next couple of weeks, Rodgers will have more threats around him than at any point in his career. That's no small statement.
Evidence Part 2: The Packers' defense looks like it's finally ready. Some consideration has to be made here for the fact that Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler reverted to his middling ways. Cutler was 12-of-21 for 135 yards, got sacked four times and threw an interception on a ridiculous heave into the middle. Cutler was indecisive throughout the game, including one ugly sack in the fourth quarter where he seemed to have no idea how to get rid of the ball.
Ultimately, though, the Packers' defense looks pretty solid in coverage and close to electric with the pass rush (linebacker Clay Matthews returned from being out for four games to get two sacks). Once the Packers get safety Charles Woodson back and up to speed, the defense should be a full go.
Here are the winners and losers for Week 15:
• fake punt with less than 13 minutes left in the game. Coming on the heels of throwing deep on fourth down in the fourth quarter against Arizona last week, coach Pete Carroll isn't making many friends around the league.No team jumps off the map the way the Seattle Seahawks do right now. They became the third team to score 50 points in back-to-back games in a season, according to STATS, and have outscored the hapless Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills, 108-17, in that span. The best part is how efficient the Seahawks have been and how quickly they are making adjustments. In this game, Seattle made its most extensive use of the read-option game that has become so popular this year. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson turned that into three touchdown runs as he continued his splendid play in the red zone. Wilson has yet to commit a turnover inside his opponents' 20-yard line. The biggest criticism of Seattle's blowout is the decision to run a
• I had been slightly on the fence about whether Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was worthy of MVP consideration, but Peterson may have put himself alongside Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers as a top contender for the award after his latest amazing game. Peterson rushed for 212 yards to lead the Vikings over St. Louis and put his team ahead of Chicago in the NFC playoff picture. Peterson, continuing to make his offseason ACL surgery look like a cosmetic procedure, now has 1,812 yards for the season. After having reached a new career high for a season, Peterson is 294 yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson's NFL record of 2,105 yards. The Vikings' star is averaging 6.3 yards per carry for the season (Dickerson averaged 5.5 in his record year) and is doing that without a lot of help from Minnesota's pass attack, which is now without Percy Harvin.
• Big props to Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, who became the seventh rookie passer to start and win a game this season (Arizona's Ryan Lindley later Sunday was the eighth). Cousins was impressive as he completed 26-of-37 for 329 yards and two scores. Along the way, Cousins helped the Redskins come back from a 7-0 deficit in the first quarter and vault them into a first-place tie in the NFC East. At the same time, the Redskins won their fifth in a row and have completely changed the face of the season. Just six weeks ago, coach Mike Shanahan remarked after Washington fell to 3-6: "You lose a game like that, now you're playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come. I'll get a chance to evaluate players and see where we're at."
• Nice work by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who ended his three-game interception slump in a big way. After throwing nine interceptions during a three-game losing streak, Brees threw four touchdown passes without an interception as the Saints torched Tampa Bay, 41-0. Brees spread the pass around to nine different receivers, including four guys for the scores.
• Nice work by Arizona's Greg Toler, who set a franchise record with a 102-yard interception return for a score as the Cardinals snapped a nine-game losing streak by blowing out the Detroit Lions. Arizona played exceptionally well on defense against Detroit, leaving Lions quarterback Matt Stafford battered by the end of this one. Stafford finished 24 for 50 for 246 yards and three interceptions, including one that was returned for a score.
•So much for Joe Flacco leading the Baltimore Ravens' offense after offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's removal. While the final score and Flacco's final stats don't look so awful, Flacco was abysmal over the first three quarters against Denver and actually played a key role in the Broncos' victory with his awful interception in the second quarter. Down 10-0 and playing no-huddle in the final 30 seconds of the second quarter, the Ravens had a first-and-goal from the Denver 4-yard line when he threw to the left to wide receiver Anquan Boldin. But Flacoo inexplicably left the throw on Boldin's inside shoulder, letting defensive back Chris Harris pick it off and return it 98 yards for a touchdown. While there is plenty of blame to go around for the Ravens' loss, including a defense that collapsed in the second half, Flacco is first in line. This is a guy who is supposed to be improving upon an impressive 2011 season in which he helped the Ravens get to the AFC championship game. He's supposed to be doing that at a time when his contract is up and the Ravens need to know that they can invest with confidence. Flacco is anything but any of those things.
• It's unfortunate that the New York Giants couldn't come up with a better effort in light of their hope to honor the victims of the Newtown tragedy. From a football perspective, the Giants' playoffs hopes are in jeopardy with two games to go. The biggest issue with the Giants is they don't consistently play with urgency and often need to have a fire lit under them. After getting off to a 6-2 start and seemingly having the division under control, the Giants have slogged along to lose four of their past six. The two victories were dominating efforts against Green Bay and New Orleans, but they then suffered the most-lopsided loss ever by a defending Super Bowl champion. The primary reason is Eli Manning, who has seven interceptions and eight touchdowns in that six-game stretch. One of the big problems Sunday was New York's failure to convert two fourth-and-1 situations in the first half after falling behind 17-0.[More: Victor Cruz will remain connected to Sandy Hook victim's family | Slideshow]
• It was a rough day for the Indianapolis Colts, who dropped a chance to make the AFC South interesting over the final two games. The problems for the Colts were obvious: They fumbled at the Houston goal line in the second quarter and then had a punt blocked for a touchdown just before halftime.
• Kansas City, what can you say? The Chiefs played down to the level of their competition in Oakland as they finished the first half with only 17 yards of offense, including a splendid performance by backup quarterback Brady Quinn. He was eight-of-12 for 34 yards in the first half during a 15-0 loss.
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant coach Bryan Cox, who won a Super Bowl ring with New England in the 2001 season, was something of a hothead in his career, as fans in Buffalo probably remember best after his double-bird special. Cox showed some of that old fire during the Buccaneers' loss to the Saints when he got into a pushing match with his own player, linebacker Adam Hayward, who tried to calm down Cox. The best part of the beef was when the 44-year-old Cox looked like he warned Hayward to back off. Sadly, Cox's players didn't show the same fight in the lopsided loss.
•Houston may have clinched the AFC South on Sunday, but its coaching staff still better be worried about the pass defense. The Texans allowed a 61-yard touchdown pass from Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton late in the first half, when they clearly should have been guarding against a deep pass. In the third quarter, the pass defense continued to be suspect as the Colts closed to within 23-17. The Texans again had no interceptions, giving them zero in four of their past five games.
• Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick is a tough and smart leader – but he's not that good of a quarterback. Sunday's game was the latest proof. As the Bills' defense returned to being horrible after a respite, Fitzpatrick threw two more interceptions. Over his four years with Buffalo, he has only 15 more touchdown passes (78) than interceptions (63). That's not a good enough differential to be an effective player in today's game.
• Rough day for Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman, who threw a season-high four interceptions (he had only eight previously) as the Buccaneers fell to 6-8. The first two interceptions were in the red zone as the Saints rolled.
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