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It's worth noting that the last time both the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers lost on the same day – Nov. 22, 2009 – neither of them made it to the AFC championship game that season. In fact, the Steelers didn't even make it to the playoffs.
If you watched what happened to the two historically rough and tough teams in the league on Sunday, you get the distinct feeling that bit of history is a harbinger. Baltimore's 31-28 overtime loss to the Washington Redskins was not necessarily shocking as much as it was another indication that the Ravens defense ain't what it used to be.
Still, at 9-4, the Ravens have a cushion. A two-game lead over both Pittsburgh and the Cincinnati Bengals with three to play – and the Steelers and Bengals still to face off once more – should be safe for a division title.
As for the Steelers, Sunday's loss to the heretofore moribund San Diego Chargers, complete with Dead Man Walking head coach Norv Turner (sorry Chargers owner Dean Spanos, nobody is buying your denial) leading the way was a shocking affair.
Losing was bad enough. Getting dominated in an important home game? That was borderline embarrassing. Even the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wasn't good enough to rally the troops. As the Steelers have looked at times throughout the season, they were a step slow and decidedly lacking in anything close to their Blitzburgh ferocity.
More specifically, the Steelers can't rush the passer right now. They haven't done it all year. They have some great stats when it comes to limiting teams to yards per pass and completion percentage against them, but the foundation of what the Steelers do is based on putting the quarterback on the ground and in fear.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers didn't consistently complete passes against the Steelers, but he never once looked frightened. By comparison, there was one moment when Roethlisberger showed the fear inevitable in any guy who stands in against that type of punishment.
During a fourth-quarter scramble as Roethlisberger tried valiantly to make the game competitive, Roethlisberger stepped up in the pocket as he has many times before. But just as he stepped up, he did something I have never seen:
He looked back, searching for a Chargers defender.
It was a subtle thing that most people probably overlooked, but this is the antithesis of Roethlisberger, the big-play quarterback who has made a living by keeping his eyes downfield as he meanders like a sixth-grader in a schoolyard pickup game. The key to Roethlisberger's inexact brilliance is the ability to find receivers downfield as he buys time. What goes with that is being impervious to the shots that go with that scrambling, hold-the-ball-to-the-last-second style.
To put it another way, Roethlisberger looked like he had lost his mojo, which makes sense as he returns from a separated shoulder and dislocated rib that caused a painful impingement. Hopefully, the mojo loss is simply temporary, a condition of pain that will subside in a week or two.
But maybe, just maybe, this is a signal of what is to come. As the saying goes in boxing, no matter how tough a fighter is, he eventually flinches after enough punches.
On Sunday, Roethlisberger flinched. As the Steelers battle for what is likely one spot between them and Cincinnati, that flinch could be telling.
Here are the winners and losers for Week 14:
The beat goes on for Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who posted his seventh consecutive 100-yard game. Actually, Peterson posted a 100-yard quarter, opening the game with 104 yards on his first 12 carries. Peterson also had two touchdowns in the quarter as Minnesota took a critical 21-14 win over the Chicago Bears on a day that the Dallas Cowboys, St. Louis Rams and Washington Redskins also won in the chase for a wild-card spot in the NFC. Peterson continued his head-to-head battle with Denver quarterback Peyton Manning for NFL Comebacker Player of the Year by finishing with 154 yards, giving him 1,600 for the season, including 1,101 in the past seven games. Despite coming back from a torn ACL, Peterson is on his way to a career-year and a great shot at 2,000 yards. He only needs 161 yards to surpass his career high (1,760) for a season.
• Peterson's dominance might have been the story of the day for the Vikings, but they also got an important contribution from Harrison Smith. The rookie safety had his second interception return for a score this season. Smith, a first-round pick, has three picks for the year. On this one, he nabbed a throw by Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler and returned it 56 yards for the deciding score.
• Congrats to Dallas, which prevailed a day after the death of teammate Jerry Brown in a car accident. The Cowboys came away with an impressive 20-19 comeback win over the Bengals as quarterback Tony Romo settled down in the final seven minutes. Romo looked erratic for much of the game as Cincinnati caused him constant trouble. Only one of Dallas' first eight drives went for longer than 40 yards and Romo was 16-of-30 for 165 yards, one interception and was sacked three times. Down 19-10 to open the fourth quarter, Romo led drives of 68 yards for a touchdown and 50 yards for a field goal that ended the game. During those drives, Romo was nine of 13 for 103 yards and one touchdown. With that, the Cowboys at least have some minor positive news in the aftermath of Brown's death, which is coupled with the arrest of fellow teammate and defensive tackle Josh Brent for intoxication manslaughter. Brent was behind the wheel when Brown was killed.
• It has been a good couple of weeks to be a punt returner, particularly returners who take odd risks. The general rule of thumb for return men is that they shouldn't field a punt inside their own 10-yard line because the odds of getting out past the 20 are generally small. But over the past two weeks, there have been two touchdown returns of longer than 90 yards. Travis Benjamin had one of 93 yards for Cleveland on Sunday after Philadelphia's Damaris Johnson had a 98-yarder against Dallas the previous Sunday.
• Nice work by San Diego coach Norv Turner on a fake punt in the fourth quarter that the Chargers ran despite being ahead on the scoreboard. Turner was trying to steal an extra possession and did just that, getting another touchdown after the fake punt on the way to victory. Nice work in a week in which Turner's likely firing was reported as a fait au complait by the San Diego Union-Tribune.
What more can you say about the Indianapolis Colts, who improved to 9-4 with their second straight fourth-quarter comeback? The Colts are 8-1 in games decided by seven points or less. Indy can clinch a playoff berth with a win in any of its final three games, although two are against AFC South leader Houston. The other is against Kansas City. Or the Colts can lock up a berth with another loss by either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. One of the key plays along the way was a fourth-quarter interception by cornerback Darius Butler, who has three picks in eight games since being signed by the Colts during the season.
• Maybe Philadelphia is on to something with Nick Foles at quarterback. Foles completed 32 of 51 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner as time ran out in the comeback stunner at Tampa Bay. Is Foles, already named the starter over Michael Vick for the remainder of the season, good enough to help save coach Andy Reid's job? Probably not, but the case will be made.
• Likewise, congrats to St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, who overcame an ugly day (19-of-39 for 209 yards) to hit Brandon Gibson for a 13-yard touchdown with 48 seconds remaining to beat Buffalo. That was one of four games played early Sunday in which the winning score came in the final minute or in overtime.
• Finally, nice work by the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton. A 72-yard touchdown run by a quarterback? Man, this is a different era.
Time to panic, Bears fans. The Bears lost for the fourth time in five games. Chicago has only one victory over a team with a winning record, but that was 9-4 Indianapolis and rookie quarterback Andrew Luck in Week 1. The worst part was Jay Cutler's inability to come up with enough plays to win, not the injuries Chicago has suffered. Aside from Cutler's aforementioned interception that was returned for a score, he and the rest of the Bears managed only 14 points against a Minnesota defense that looks nothing like the Purple People Eaters. Forget about being a one-and-done playoff team. Right now, the Bears might not get that far.
• Stay classy, Rob Ryan. The Cowboys' defensive coordinator put on a show to earn an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the third quarter against the Bengals. Ryan took issue with the blocking of Cincinnati right tackle Andre Smith, whereupon Ryan went on the field and argued with Smith. That earned the flag, which gave the Bengals a first-and-goal (Cincy ended up kicking a field goal).
• Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker continues to struggle in key moments. While Locker was solid in the first half with both his arm and his legs, running for two first downs, he was awful in the second half. He had two interceptions, including one from his own end zone that was returned for a score, a play Locker should have recognized easily. Locker made mistake after mistake in the second half as the Titans scored only three points after putting up 20 before intermission.
• Buffalo's defense has improved over the past five games, not that it had any other direction to go. However, the Bills' coverage schemes continue to be exposed at critical moments, such as the aforementioned touchdown pass by Sam Bradford to Brandon Gibson. Or as one wide receiver from an AFC East team said this week: "They have a pattern for how they like to run certain coverages. It's not exactly hard to figure out what they want to do."
• If Atlanta expects the league to take it seriously, it can't have games like Sunday when it fell behind 23-0 against Carolina. Sure, the Falcons don't have a lot to play for now (generally, seeding in the playoffs isn't enough to motivate many players). So after clinching the NFC South last weekend, it's not surprising that Atlanta would lose this game. But sometimes it's the way you play that says more than the result. The Falcons eventually rallied, but the opening act was unimpressive.
• Dear Ken Whisenhunt, you have officially lost your team. If you're not really creative, you're about to lose your job.
• After a decent rally to the season, the New Orleans Saints have gone into reverse. But hey, they might win a big victory Tuesday when Paul Tagliabue announces his verdict in the bounty scandal appeal. That's sure going to be meaningful.
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