The New York Giants fell apart in Atlanta on Sunday and two of their long-time rivals took advantage.
Washington, despite playing without superstar rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, trounced the Browns, and Dallas persevered to top the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime, creating a three-way tie atop the NFC East with just two weeks left in the regular season.
The Falcons got their revenge against the Giants, and made quite a statement in doing so.
Matt Ryan threw three touchdown passes, including a pair to Julio Jones, and Atlanta dealt New York its first regular-season shutout in 16 years with an authoritative 34-0 victory at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons offered up a receipt for their 24-2 throttling at the hands of the Giants during last season's NFC Wild Card Playoffs behind a near-flawless performance from Ryan, with the standout quarterback completing a sharp 23- of-28 passes for 270 yards without a turnover.
Atlanta's defense did its part as well, intercepting the Giants' Eli Manning twice in the first half and stopping New York on downs three times over the course of the game.
Manning managed just 161 passing yards on 14-of-26 efficiency as the Giants were held scoreless in a non-playoff setting for the first time since a 24-0 setback at Philadelphia on Dec. 1, 1996.
"Atlanta was very, very good and we were very, very bad," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin remarked. "We came out and did exactly what we said we couldn't afford to do, which was turn the ball over."
At the same time up in the Forest City, rookie Kirk Cousins was once again stepping up for Washington.
Starting in place of the injured RG3, Cousins threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns in his first NFL start to help the Redskins claim a 38-21 victory over the Browns.
Leonard Hankerson hauled in both of Cousins' TD passes, and fellow rookie Alfred Morris rushed for 87 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries in the win.
"This isn't my first rodeo, I did play a lot of football in the Big Ten," said Cousins, who starred at Michigan State. "There are games like that where it starts slow, you got to have character and find it within yourself to dig deep and keep pushing. That's what we did and that's what I'm proud of our team for."
It could have went either way for the Cowboys until Brandon Carr intercepted Ben Roethlisberger on the second play of overtime to set up Dan Bailey's 21- yard game-winning field goal in Dallas' 27-24 triumph over the slumping Steelers in North Texas.
Carr's pick was the second critical turnover forced by Dallas in rallying from a 24-17 deficit with just over 10 minutes left in regulation. The Cowboys tied the game on a 3-yard touchdown run from DeMarco Murray, which came shortly after mistake-prone Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown lost a fumble on a punt return near midfield.
Tony Romo did his part as well in the Cowboys' third consecutive victory and fifth triumph in their last six tilts, throwing for a pair of touchdowns and amassing 341 passing yards while completing 30-of-42 throws.
"It's the nature of this league. If you look at teams all around this league, the games come down to the end," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "We just seem to play in maybe more of these kinds of games than most teams and Dan Bailey has made so many kicks for us over the years to win games."
The reigning Super Bowl champs still control their own destiny and would make the playoffs by winning out and finishing at 10-6, but taking the division is now unlikely since both the Redskins and Cowboys own tiebreakers over Big Blue if they finish with the same 10-6 mark.
That could make Week 17's matchup with Dallas visiting Washington essentially a play-in game, with the winner earning the NFC East crown and the loser being jettisoned from the postseason.
First things first of course with Week 16 playing a pivotal role. The 'Skins probably have the easiest road, playing on the road against a moribund Philadelphia team which seems to have has shut down Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy for the season. The Cowboys remain in the Lone Star State but have to take on Drew Brees and a New Orleans team which, while flawed, is explosive.
The G-Men, meanwhile, have to visit Charm City to take on a desperate Baltimore Ravens club which has lost two straight at home for the first time under coach John Harbaugh.
THE MONDAY REWIND
COWBOYS STAND BEHIND EMBATTLED BRENT
Jerry Jones stood behind his decision to allow Josh Brent on the sideline during Sunday's game.
Brent is currently facing a charge of intoxication manslaughter after a drunk driving accident killed his former teammate and best friend, Jerry Brown, last week,
"Our team and our players wanted him today on the sideline," Jones told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Jerry's mother (Stacey Jackson) asked us directly as a group. She said, 'Support him. Help him. He needs your help. Jerry wants that. I want that.' His teammates asked him to come and be down there with them."
Obviously Brent's presence upset many with CBS analyst Boomer Esiason particularly angry at the organization, calling it "disgraceful" during the network's pregame show and going even further on his daily CBS Radio hit.
"Football players are an example and Josh Brent is the worst of those examples," Esiason said.
If Jackson found it in her heart to forgive Brent and asked the Cowboys to support a man, who is undoubtedly dealing with a lot of guilt while facing some serious jail time, who are we to criticize that?
People handle grief in different ways and a mother who lost her son has decided forgiveness is what's best for her.
Esiason's opinion and any other critic's for that matter simply doesn't matter here.
BEARS HAVE NO PERSONAILTY
All great teams have personalities.
The character traits that define a team can center on offense or defense but they have to be consistent variables.
Aaron Rodgers is a constant. Scoring defensive touchdowns is not.
That's why the Green Bay Packers are celebrating their second consecutive NFC North Division crown and the Chicago Bears are in free-fall.
Chicago was once 7-1 and is now 8-6 on the outside, looking in at the NFC playoff race with just two games to play after the Packers wrapped up the division with a 21-13 win at Soldier Field on Sunday.
Rodgers finished the game 23-for-36 for 291 yards for Green Bay, which has beaten the Bears six straight times and won 12 straight division games overall.
"Of course there's a lot of disappointment when you lose six straight to your rival," said Chicago head coach Lovie Smith. "We had opportunities throughout the game that we didn't take advantage of. We were up there at first, but we had some things there that changed momentum. Again, it's very disappointing and we have to find a different way to make it to the playoffs now."
Forcing turnovers is great and no one has done it better over the years than the Bears. But, while being on the right side of the plus-minus standings guarantees success more that any other metric, let's be honest -- you can't count on forcing miscues as your collective identity.
Early in the season Chicago was relying on its opportunistic defense, which scored seven touchdowns in the first eight games. They have none since.
If you're looking for excuses, you can blame the lack of production over the past few weeks on the loss of Brian Urlacher to a hamstring injury or the fact that interception machine Tim Jennings has been dealing with a shoulder problem. That said, it's not like Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman have forgotten how to take the ball away.
Opponents understand what the Bears are about these days and amp up the attention to detail when it comes to ball security. If any opponent is intent on playing a clean game, even if that means playing extremely conservatively, Chicago is generally at a loss.
Jay Cutler, who typically struggles mightily against the Pack, passed for just 135 yards on 12-of-21 attempts with a touchdown and an interception for the Bears on Sunday. Cutler has thrown eight touchdowns and 17 interceptions while compiling a dismal 1-7 record against the Packers since arriving in the Windy City.
A woeful offensive line, the lack of a consistent running game and the failure to develop a second receiving option to compliment Brandon Marshall has all contributed to the latest Bears collapse.
"Everyone on offense needs to be held accountable, even if it means jobs," Marshall said. "There's no excuse. We still have two games left, there's still hope, but we need to be held accountable."
"We" in this case is going to be Smith, who isn't all that highly-regarded in the Second City despite piloting Chicago to three division crowns, two NFC Championship Games, a Super Bowl and compiling a solid 79-63 record over his nine years in town.
"It's been the same way all year," Marshall said. "It's the same thing every single game. We need to be held accountable. What I got to do is try my best to keep it together and not let this affect me because it's starting to affect me more than it should. And I love this game, I'm very passionate about this game, and right now it's affecting me way too much."
BOUNCE BACK SUNDAY
Despite having the best records in their respective conferences, few NFL observers counted Atlanta or Houston as their Super Bowl favorites.
Losses by the Falcons in Carolina and the Texans at New England in Week 14 had the doubters emerging from the shadows and becoming the vocal minority.
That had to change, at least a little this week, after both frontrunners bounced back emphatically.
The Falcons got their revenge against the Giants, while the Texans shook off a humbling beatdown in Foxboro with an AFC South division-clinching 29-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts at Reliant Stadium.
Matt Schaub ended with 261 yards on 23-of-31 passing and a touchdown for the Texans, who rebounded from a 42-14 loss to the Pats to capture their second straight division crown. Arian Foster gained 165 yards on 27 carries and Andre Johnson had 11 receptions for 151 yards and a TD.
J.J. Watt, meanwhile, racked up a game-high 10 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble. The Defensive Player of the Year candidate also had four tackles for no gain or loss, and his forced fumble on Mewelde Moore prevented a touchdown as the Colts tried to punch it in from the Texans' 1- yard line.
"I liked the way we got back to what we are as a football team today, protecting the ball, running the ball, playing solid defense," said Texans coach Gary Kubiak.
ALL DAY MVP
Adrian Peterson's nickname is "All Day."
The St. Louis Rams certainly understand why.
The Rams stuck nine in the box on Sunday and had some early success bottling up A.P. for just eight yards on his first eight carries.
"This is probably the most I've talked trash in six years. Seriously," Peterson told ESPN Twin Cities. "Because these guys were coming in, hitting late -- not really late, but getting some extra hits in. I love it, because I play with that same passion.
"But I got up in some of the guys' face a couple of times, and I had to get away from that. Get back to being an assassin. Not saying anything. Just hitting them."
His ninth carry was quite a hit -- if fact it was the knockout blow.
Minnesota caught St. Louis in a run blitz with a delayed draw to Peterson, who raced 82 yards for a touchdown, producing a look of awe on the faces of Rams defenders Chris Long and Craig Dahl.
"It was kind of a perfect storm for him to hit that run with what we had lined up and the play they called," Long said. "We continued to just pound away at it, but that's a damn, damn good football player and he made some really good plays out there."
When the Rams started showing some life in the fourth quarter Peterson was stacked up in the backfield before cutting right and again gashing the St, Louis defense for 52 yards.
"It was congested, so I was trying to make a way out of no way," Peterson added. "They had got within two touchdowns. We needed something done productive on offense. So, I just kept fighting."
By the end of the 36-22 Vikings win the carnage read 212 yards on 24 carries for Peterson, who now has 1,812 yards this season and still has a real shot at reaching Eric Dickerson's single-season mark of 2,105 rushing yards.
"It's in the back of my head that I definitely want to accomplish that," Peterson said of breaking Dickerson's record. "So, I'm just going to continue to let the chips fall where they may. I look at (Sunday)'s game -- I could have had 300. You know what? It wasn't meant to happen. We got the 'W'. You got closer. Just move on, keep playing football."
Making Peterson's day against St. Louis even more impressive was the fact the Rams hadn't allowed a rusher more than 65 yards in each of their last four games.
Minnesota has the toughest schedule of any remaining playoff contender, having to play division winners Houston on the road and Green Bay at Mall of America Field.
Postseason or not, however, Peterson has already captured many MVP votes. Forget the amazing comeback from major knee surgery in eight months. What A.P. has accomplished with a quarterback who struggles to throw for 100 yards each week and against eight- and nine-man fronts designed to stop him on a weekly basis is unprecedented.
"They kept crashing some guys down inside to make us bounce the football to try to get us to go sideways, rather than doing the things we've had so much success with," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "And they had some success early, getting us to bounce some plays. But we eventually got what we wanted."
A cross between Earl Campbell, Walter Payton and Bo Jackson, Peterson now has eight consecutive 100-yard games, a franchise record, and his 1,313 yards over that stretch are an NFL record. He's also got two 200-yard performances in three weeks.
"Adrian was unbelievable, even with their defense stacking the line of scrimmage against him," Frazier said.
Watt and the Texans better being their lunch pails in Week 16 because Peterson will be there -- "All Day."
-Sunday marked the latest calendar day in NFL history in which six games were played between teams with winning records. The Packers and Texans clinched division crowns while the Ravens secured a playoff berth despite their 34-27 loss to the Broncos. San Francisco also sewed up a playoff berth with an ultra-exiting 41-34 Sunday night win at New England.
-Denver quarterback Peyton Manning passed for 204 yards and a touchdown in the Broncos' win at Baltimore, reaching 4,016 passing yards for the season and extending his own NFL record by recording his 12th career 4,000-yard season.
Manning, in his first season with Denver, is also only the fifth player in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards with two different teams, joining Drew Bledsoe, Brett Favre, Warren Moon and Kurt Warner. Meanwhile, the veteran became the first NFL quarterback in the Super Bowl era to achieve nine 11-win seasons, passing Favre.
-Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson had a hand in four touchdowns (three rushing, one passing) in the Seahawks' 50-17 win over Buffalo in Toronto. Wilson is the first player in NFL history to have three rushing touchdowns and a passing touchdown in the first half of a game. The Seahawks, who scored 58 points last week, are also the first team since the 1950 New York Giants to score 50 points in consecutive games in a single season.
-Brees passed for 307 yards and four touchdowns in the Saints' 41-0 win over Tampa Bay, his 17th game with at least 300 passing yards and four touchdowns passing Dan Marino for the most such games in NFL history.
-Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson had 10 catches for 121 yards in Detroit's 38-10 loss at Arizona, his seventh straight 100-yard receiving game, matching Charley Hennigan (1961) and Michael Irvin (1995) for the longest streak in NFL history.
Johnson also has 1,667 receiving yards this season, becoming the first player in NFL history with at least 1,600 yards in consecutive seasons.