Philip Rivers, QB (Chargers)

LAC 28 at DAL 6

The Cowboys defense on Thanksgiving Day gave up 515 yards of total offense to Los Angeles at home for 7.8 yards per play.   Five Chargers also had 50+ yards receiving.  And, the Cowboys defense did not give up any sacks and/or takeaways.  So, it’s no wonder the soon-to-be 36-year-old QB Philip Rivers had a stellar day.  Having the ability to stay upright, he slung the football all around the field and became the AFC’s Offensive Player of the week.  All told, Rivers threw 27-33 passes for a season high 434 yards, had 3 TDs, 0 Interceptions and finished with a 149.1 passer rating to help his team stay in 2nd place in the AFC West Division.  With 5 winnable games left, it is feasible that this team (behind an improved and talented defense) could make a run for the post season.  They won’t have to worry much about the health and strength of their aging QB, though.  He’s shown incredible durability, having started every game since 2006 (188 games) and is currently on pace to be sacked the least than any previous year.  If the Giants do bench Eli Manning this week as threatened, then Rivers will take over the lead for most consecutive starts amongst active QBs.

Joe Mixon, RB (Bengals)

CLE 16 at CIN 30

It must have felt good for this 21-year-old Bengals rookie to finally break out and have his first career day after 12 starts.  In a few previous games this season, Mixon had a similar amount of chances (attempts), but was not able to break-free behind his struggling O-Line and utilize his vision to make the right plays.  But, Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator (Bill Lazor) thinks the young back improved on Sunday when he said, [Mixon] showed some maturity as a runner in this game. Taking some where it wasn’t blocked perfectly and rather than stuttering and looking for a home run somewhere else, he jammed it in there and made it five yards. That was big for us.”  Indeed, the 6’1, 228 lbs newcomer ran for 114 yards (a career high) on 23 attempts, scored a TD and caught 3 passes for 51 yards.  Mixon did give credit to his offensive line several times after the game and said that he had promised to buy them dinner at a meeting on Friday. It’s not likely the promise of a great meal motivated the big men up front, but both Mixon and his O-Line made obvious strides in this one.  They look to keep it going against the surging Steelers on Monday night.

Julio Jones, WR (Falcons)

ATL 34 at TB 20

Even though the stats indicate that Antonio Brown is the best wide receiver in the NFL, my favorite elite wideout is Julio Jones.  I always say, “just put it in the area” and Julio will reel it in.  Time and time again, I’ve witnessed the magic he does with getting those two feet in for a legal catch or stretching his body to the limits to get a TD.  He’s unbelievably athletic and fun to watch.  And, it was great to see him dominate like he did during Week 12.  Jones had 12 receptions for 253 yards and 2 TDs.  It became the 38th time in his career that he topped 100 yards, the 3rd time he topped 250 yards, and the 5th time that he scored 2 TDs in the first half.  Jones also now has the most receiving yards through any player’s first 90 games (8,534) and has caught more passes than anyone else in NFL history (563) (according to Will McFadden, Yeah, he earned the NFC Player of the week award in spades.  QB Matt Ryan knows a thing or two about the 28-year old veteran.  He said this week about Julio, “If we could just dial up 250 yards from him every week, it would be a pretty good recipe for success. He’s so explosive. He’s an unbelievable talent and an unbelievable competitor.” Well, going down the stretch, the Falcons will continue to need Jones to be unbelievable.  Atlanta is set to face the Vikings, Saints twice, Buccaneers and the Panthers to finish out the season.  4 of 5 games against division foes.  At 7-4 and 3rd in the NFC South, it’s going to be a tough road for the Falcons if they want to get back to the Super Bowl.

Denico Autry, DE (Raiders)

DEN 14 at OAK 21

Before the season started, I thought the AFC West would produce 3 teams to compete in the post season (KC, OAK, DEN). But after Week 12, it seems like no one wants to clinch.  Check that: The Chargers have won 2 in a row and seem to be improving at the right time.  But, of all the teams in the division, I thought the Raiders may have had the most upside.  So, it’s a shock to see the position they are in now (5-6; 3rd place).  During last week’s win against Denver, though, there were signs the tide may be turning in their favor, particularly on defense.  Take the performance of 27-year-old Denico Autry who had a career day.  The 4-year Mississippi State grad had 2.0 sacks for 17 yards, 2 QB hits, 2 tackles and 1 assist.  The rest of the defense was fired up too.  Bruce Irvin had 2 sacks as well, Khalil Mack had 1, and NaVorro Bowman intercepted in the end zone during the 2Q.  It makes me wonder what kind of effect their new defensive coordinator (John Pagano) had on them so quickly.  He replaced Ken Norton Jr., who was fired 5 days previous to the game.  Will Pagano help them improve in the nick of time?  Overall, the defense is ranked 24th, passing defense 27th, and rushing defense 12th.

Luke Kuechly, LB (Panthers)

CAR 35 at NYJ 27

QB Cam Newton calls him “Captain America”, likely for all the heroics this 26-year-old elite defensive linebacker has been throwing down in his 6-year career with the Panthers.  And, he did it again during Week 12 when Carolina was down 18-20 in the 4Q.  Kuechly picked up a forced fumble by DE Wes Horton and returned it untouched to the end zone 34 yards for his 2nd career TD.  This “scoop-‘n-score” play (and Carolina’s first defensive TD of the season) spurred on the rest of team to get it done and they never looked back for the win.  Kuechly also had 9 combined tackles (4 solo) in Sunday’s game, his 80th of the season.  For his performance, he earned his 5th NFC Defensive Player of the week award, surpassing 16-year veteran Julius Peppers record for the honor (4) as a Panther.  Peppers recently said that 2 players compare to Kuechly that he has witnessed and their level of instinctiveness about the game:  Brian Urlacher and Aaron Rodgers.  Those are quite big names to live up to.

New Orleans Saints (Coach Sean Payton)

NO 20 at LAR 26

The decision by Saints’ Head Coach Sean Payton didn’t make sense to me at the time… New Orleans was down by 13 points against the Rams on the road in the 4Q during Week 12, but had hopes they would enter into another late-game comeback as they had done against the Redskins just a week ago.  Things were looking good when they put together a big drive and got into the red zone with 10 minutes left.  Several plays later, though, they came up short on 3rd down at the Rams’ 4-yard line.  Everyone, including the broadcasters (and me), expected them to go on 4th down and try for a TD.  What else did they have to lose?  If not, it was probable that the Rams would score again and put the game entirely out of reach.  Instead, Coach Payton decided they would kick a field goal, putting New Orleans 10 points behind with 10:50 left to go.  That bad decision ultimately bit the team in the backside, and the Saints lost to the Rams.  The worst part, is that Week 12 was a critical game for the Saints as the NFC South has become very competitive. Now the team from the Big Easy stands at 8-3, tied with Carolina atop the division and have the rising Falcons on their heels at 7-4.  So, why did Coach Payton play it so safe on Sunday and kick that field goal?  At least some experts feel this 1 decision could define the rest of their season, especially if they miss the playoffs when they were so close.  Up next, the Saints are to face the Panthers, then Atlanta on Dec 7 and again on Christmas Eve…


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