Winner: Merril Hoge
Somewhere, Merril Hoge is popping champagne bottles to celebrate the wisdom of his perpetual demand to "run the football and play defense," as if every time he says it he's announcing the discovery of life on another planet. The Pittsburgh-style, old-school football he celebrates certainly worked this week.
On a sloppy, rainy day in New England, the Steelers did all the little things right to stomp the Patriots, 33-10: they ran the ball well (34 for 161, 4.7 YPA), won the turnover battle (5 to 1), played great on third down (converting 8 of 16, while holding New England to 1 of 13) and controlled the clock (35:05 to 24:55).
The ground game was most impressive: the Steelers had struggled all year running the ball, averaging just 3.6 YPA entering the game – 29th in the NFL – yet they manhandled the Patriots front seven, especially in the second half.
Loser: The Matt Cassel bandwagon
If you're looking for a bargain on sousaphones and cymbals, you'll find them in New England this week as the Cassel bandwagon screeches to a halt and falls silent.
The recently-hyped Patriots replacement QB fell back to Earth with the same fiery thud of Skylab with his worst performance as a pro in New England's crushing loss to the Steelers.
Cassel completed 19 of 39 passes (48.7%) for 169 yards, 4.3 YPA, 0 TD, 2 INT and a 39.4 rating – his career worst in virtually every category. He was also strip-sacked on consecutive possessions in the third quarter, and then followed that up by throwing picks on the next two possessions in the fourth quarter to essentially hand the game to the Steelers with four turnovers on four second-half possessions.
Winner: the NFC East
The Glamour Division is living up to the hype here in 2008, and Week 13 was no exception. Dallas and Philly both enjoyed huge helpings of victory on Turkey Day – winning by a combined score of 82-29. The division's only loss was by the Redskins Sunday – at the hands of the division-leading, defending-champ Giants.
The NFC East is poised to become the first division in history in which every team finishes above .500. Four divisions have come close, fielding teams that were all at least .500 or better (including the NFC East last year).
By the way, the NFC East has fielded just one losing team over the last three seasons: the 2006 Redskins went 5-11.
Loser: the AFC East
The AFC East had emerged as easily the most competitive division in the conference this year. But it suffered a humiliating Week 13 – the Jets were doubled up at home by the flawed Broncos, 34-17; the Patriots were outclassed at home, 33-10, by the Steelers; and the Bills were embarrassed at home, 10-3, by the lousy 49ers. Miami was the division's only winner this week – but even the Dolphins provided little reason to celebrate, hanging on for a 16-12 win over the pathetic Rams.
Winner: Vikings management
Minnesota paid big bucks to pull defensive end Jared Allen away from Kansas City and it's paid great dividends throughout the year – but none bigger than the role he played in Minnesota's battle for first place in the Black & Blow Division against the Bears Sunday night.
Allen made a pivotal fourth-down stop on a game-changing goal line stand in the second quarter, and hauled down Bears QB Kyle Orton three times, tying a career high for sacks, as the Vikings won big, 34-14. Allen is among the league leaders with 11 sacks this year, while the Vikings sit alone in first place in the NFC North. Minnesota is also among the league leaders on our Defensive Hog Index
, and against the run in particular.
If the Vikings are going to make any noise in the playoffs this year, Allen and the front seven will play a huge role.
Loser: Bears brain trust
Chicago wunderkind Devin Hester looked like his old explosive self, scoring on a 65-yard catch and run to give the Bears an early 7-0 lead over the Vikings Sunday night. It was his longest TD of the year – and just about all we saw out of Hester for the evening. He added two more catches for just 2 yards.
Looking back, the decision to convert him to an offensive player is not paying great dividends for Chicago, at least not yet. Hester scored an unbelievable 11 TDs on punt and kick returns in 2006 and 2007, his first two years in the league – on a total of 152 touches, while getting only spot duty on offense.
This year, being used primarily as a receiver, he's caught a respectable 34 passes for 442 yards, and just three TDs. He's hardly been a gamebreaker. His touches are also way down in the kicking game, meanwhile, and he's yet to return one to the house.
Winner: Herm Edwards
We figure this is the last chance we have to dub Edwards a winner here in 2008, or any year beyond. Herm's Chiefs played to win the game, beating the Raiders 20-13, while avenging an early-season loss to Oakland, ending a seven-game losing streak and improving to 2-10.
Of course, this being an Edwards team, there's a dark cloud to every silver lining: the Chiefs had a chance to garner the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft with another loss to the Raiders, but will probably tumble to No. 3 next April, behind the Lions (0-12) and Bengals (1-10-1). Of course, what does Herm care? He'll be an assistant somewhere in the MAC or Mountain West next season.
Loser: Parity (again)
The 2007 season marked the first time in history that one NFL team finished 15 games better than another NFL team, when the Patriots went 16-0 and the Dolphins went 1-15.
We could see the same 15-game spread between winners and losers again here in 2008. The Giants and Titans could both finish the year 15-1, while the Lions are well on their way to becoming the NFL's first 0-16 team – just one year after the NFL's first 16-0 team. If you define "parity" as vast, historic chasms between the best and worst teams in the league then, yes, there is parity in the NFL.