The quarterbacks went down, and they went down hard.
Houston, Washington and Tennessee lost their quarterbacks Sunday. Even Denver had to do without Peyton Manning for a bit, with the Broncos star uncharacteristically missing a few snaps in San Diego because of a thigh injury and flu-like symptoms — although he came back to lead his team to a 22-10 victory and a fourth consecutive AFC West title.
Knocked out of action and unable to return were the Texans’ Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Redskins’ Colt McCoy and the Titans’ Jake Locker, with all three of those teams losing. That punctuated a week when Arizona won despite losing quarterback Drew Stanton, and Carolina’s Cam Newton was sidelined by fractures in his back he sustained in a rollover car accident.
The even more surprising stories Sunday were the quarterbacks who played but never truly showed up.
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers had arguably the worst game of his career in a 21-13 loss to Buffalo. And rookie Johnny Manziel’s debut in Cleveland was a flop, as the Browns were throttled by Cincinnati, 30-0.
“It was tough,” said Manziel, who finished 10 for 18 for 80 yards with two interceptions, and was sacked three times. “When you get beat, you get beat and you take it like a man. I felt like it was a fail on my part.”
The Browns, who benched quarterback Brian Hoyer in favor of Manziel, have gone four games without a touchdown pass.
Cleveland’s best chance to score came near the end of the first half when the Browns drove to the Cincinnati 19. The threat ended when Manziel, under heavy pressure, wildly flung a pass that was intercepted at the goal line by Adam Jones.
“You can’t throw the second one whether you’re playing in a Pop Warner league, or if you’re 6 years old playing in the driveway, you can’t throw that ball,” Manziel said. “It’s 100% on me.”
The Bengals, who suffered a humiliating 21-point home loss to the Browns last month, must have worn holes in the thumbs and forefingers of their gloves Sunday, so frequently were they mocking Manziel’s thumb-rubbing “money sign.”
“Everything was all about Manziel all week,” said Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga, who was flagged for running up to Manziel after knocking down a pass and taunting him with the gesture. “We just focused on us. We focused on what we needed to do to stop the kid.”
Although they’re leading the AFC North by a half-game, the Bengals have not wrapped up the division. Meanwhile, Denver, Indianapolis and New England all clinched their divisions Sunday, guaranteeing themselves at least a home playoff game.
The picture is foggier in the NFC, in part because the Packers lost in Buffalo, where they are 0-6 in club history.
Rodgers, who came into the game the hottest player in the NFL, completed 17 of 42 passes with no touchdowns and two interceptions for a career-low passer rating of 34.3. The loss snapped Green Bay’s five-game winning streak, and — coupled with Detroit’s victory over Minnesota — bumped the Packers into second place in the NFC North behind the Lions.
The Bills, five-point underdogs at home, discovered the Rambo Leap, as third-string safety Baccari Rambo made his first two career interceptions against a leading candidate to win this season’s NFL most-valuable-player award.
Rodgers came into the Buffalo game with 35 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Buffalo put the clamps on him just a week after shutting down Manning and ending his streak of 51 consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
“To [hold] not one quarterback, but two of the hottest quarterbacks in the NFL to no passing touchdowns, this is huge,” Rambo said. “Huge confidence boost for us.”
The crowning blow to Rodgers came with 1:51 left, when Mario Williams stripped the ball from him deep in Packers territory, and Eddie Lacy scooped up the fumble in the end zone and tried to run it out. The play was whistled dead as a safety, because of a somewhat obscure rule born out of the old “Holy Roller” touchdown by the Oakland Raiders: Inside of two minutes, only the player who fumbled is allowed to advance the ball.
Sunday’s meltdown wasn’t all Rodgers’ fault. In the fourth quarter, he hit receiver Jordy Nelson in stride for what might have been a 94-yard touchdown, but the typically sure-handed Nelson dropped the ball. The entire state of Wisconsin slapped the sides of its head in frustration.
The Packers finish at two-win Tampa Bay and at home against Detroit, so they still are in position to win the NFC North and potentially secure one of the NFC’s top two seeds for a first-round bye. But Sunday’s loss could mean the road to the Super Bowl will not go through Lambeau Field.
Considering the Packers are 3-4 on the road, and that foul weather in Green Bay can be their friend, the defeat at Buffalo was an undeniable setback.
“We weren’t sharp, no doubt about it,” Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said. “Our passing game — that’s not the kind of numbers we’re used to producing. So we will go back and learn from it.”
Outside looking in
For the first time in Coach Jim Harbaugh’s four seasons, the San Francisco 49ers won’t make the playoffs.
They were knocked out Sunday by their most bitter rival, suffering a 17-7 defeat at Seattle. Their fate was sealed when Detroit held on to beat Minnesota, mathematically eliminating the 49ers from wild-card contention.
The loss also marked the first three-game slide of the Harbaugh era, likely to end in a couple of weeks.
The Seahawks are heading in the other direction, picking up their seventh victory in eight games. Their defense, which looks as dominant as it did at the end of last season, sacked Colin Kaepernick six times and collected five other tackles for loss.
“We didn’t give up any yards, we just played our way,” Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett said. “We played team defense and that’s the way you play championship football.”
In the last four games, Seattle’s defense has surrendered a total of 27 points.
Another blowout for New England, which turned a close game with Miami into a 41-13 laugher with a 24-point third quarter. The Patriots have won six AFC East titles in a row, tied for the second-longest streak in NFL history and one shy of the record set by the Los Angeles Rams from 1973-79.
“Everything starts with winning your division,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “We wanted to win big.”
Of course, that’s just a stepping stone for a franchise that’s accustomed to playing on the biggest stage. By winning, the Patriots tightened their grip on the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and Gillette Stadium can be a mighty unwelcome place for visiting teams, especially in January. New England closes its schedule at home against the New York Jets and at Buffalo.
Opponents still don’t have an answer for tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had three catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. But the play that really woke up New England’s sluggish offense Sunday was a 17-yard run by the less-than-fleet-footed Tom Brady on third and 11 on the opening drive of the third quarter.
“It was a play that we needed to make so it was good to make it at that time,” Brady said. “I was going to slide but I was pretty [ticked] off that time so I figured I wouldn’t slide.”
There’s always a catch
The New York Giants aren’t going anywhere this season, but they have a phenomenal game changer in rookie Odell Beckham Jr., who had 12 catches for 143 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-13 victory over Washington. He would have had a fourth touchdown, but it was wiped out by a holding penalty.
Beckham has been almost unguardable lately, with 866 yards receiving and six touchdowns in the last six games. He missed most of training camp and the first four games of the season because of a hamstring injury.
An interesting coincidence: Beckham attended Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, the alma mater of Giants quarterback Eli Manning and his older brother, Peyton.
We’re No. 1 . . . sort of
In losing at Carolina, Tampa Bay moved into the lead for the No. 1 draft pick in April, possibly Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota of Oregon.
The Buccaneers have the “edge” over Tennessee based on the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker. Behind them, in order, are Jacksonville and Oakland. The four finalists are all 2-11.