Five former winners — Cam Newton, Sam Bradford, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and Carson Palmer — had huge days to help their teams to victory Sunday as the league entered its stretch run for the playoffs.
The Carolina Panthers remained the NFL's only undefeated team by narrowly winning at New Orleans, 41-38, with Newton throwing for five touchdowns and further fueling his most-valuable-player campaign.
While his stats weren't gaudy — 14 for 24, 120 yards and two touchdowns — Bradford was under center for Philadelphia's 35-28 stunner at New England. The Eagles were 9 1/2-point underdogs — the same spread the 9-2 Cincinnati Bengals had over the 2-9 Cleveland Browns.
Palmer threw for 356 yards and two touchdowns in Arizona's 27-3 win over the St. Louis Rams, burnishing his own MVP credentials as the Cardinals won their sixth straight to maintain their three-game lead in the NFC West. He is second in the league in quarterback rating (105.9) and touchdown passes (27) and third in yards passing (3,337).
Then, there were the two most recent Heisman winners, Tampa Bay's Winston and Tennessee's Mariota. They were the first two picks in last spring's NFL draft and were an undeniable 1-2 punch Sunday.
Winston directed the Buccaneers to a 23-19 win over Atlanta, and Mariota won a 42-39 shootout with Jacksonville.
Heisman winners aren't always great NFL players, but these two rookies are leaving their mark. Each had at least one All-DVR run. Mariota rambled 87 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter as the Titans snapped an 11-game home losing streak.
Winston's big run was shorter but even more astounding. On third and 19, he dropped back to pass, couldn't find anyone open, then tucked the ball and took off. He appeared to be stopped short of the first down, but he somehow bounced out of the pile and continued the run for a total of 20 yards.
"That play was amazing," Buccaneers running back Doug Martin said. "I thought he was down, but that type of effort is contagious and that's the type of effort that we need on this team."
Mariota ran for 112 yards and threw for three touchdowns and 268 yards. He has four games with at least three touchdown passes, tying Peyton Manning for the most ever by a rookie.
The Titans snapped an 11-game home losing streak, winning in Nashville for the first time since Oct. 12, 2014 — their only home win last year. Still, they're largely playing for pride now at 3-9.
The stakes are much higher for the Buccaneers, who at 6-6 are still in the playoff mix. The team they beat is 6-6 too, but the Falcons have lost five in a row and six of seven since getting off to a 5-0 start.
"That's as tough as it gets for us," Atlanta Coach Dan Quinn said. "The finish was at hand. For us, finishing is about doing right longer, and we didn't get that done."
In Foxborough, Philadelphia had a 21-point lead with less than six minutes to play, yet nearly saw that evaporate. Even as Patriots fans streamed out of Gillette Stadium to get an early jump on the drive home, Tom Brady brought his team back to the brink of victory.
Brady threw for a touchdown to make it a two-score game, then, after a successful onside kick, trimmed the deficit to seven points with a one-yard scoring run with three minutes left.
Suddenly, the Philadelphia mantra "Fly Eagles Fly" should have been "Why Eagles Why?"
But it was not to be for the Patriots, as Brady completed just one of seven passes (counting a clock-stopping spike) on his team's final possession, and New England turned it over on downs.
Philadelphia, which was coming off back-to-back losses to Miami and Tampa Bay, had not beaten New England since 1999, when Andy Reid was coaching the Eagles and Pete Carroll was coaching the Patriots.
So it was a great near-comeback for Brady until the end.
Well, nobody's perfect.
Except the Panthers, at least so far.
The game was a masterpiece for Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who threw for three touchdowns and ran for one.
"It's hard to even explain how he's playing. It's just phenomenal," said receiver Doug Baldwin, who caught two touchdown passes. "He's trusting the line, staying in the pocket, making his reads. He's delivering the ball with stupid accuracy, and it's unbelievable to watch."
And the Seahawks aren't missing the injured Marshawn Lynch, thanks to the play of rookie Thomas Rawls. He ran for 101 yards and a touchdown, bringing his season yardage total to 712 — the most yards rushing by an undrafted player in his first six career games.
It was not a banner day for kickers, as three of the NFL's most reliable ones missed clutch field goal attempts.
Chicago's Robbie Gould, who entered Week 13 as the seventh-most-accurate kicker in league history, missed a 36-yarder with two seconds remaining in regulation in a tied game against San Francisco. The 49ers went on to win in overtime, 26-20.
Baltimore's Justin Tucker missed a 55-yarder late in the fourth quarter of a 15-13 loss at Miami. There's no real shame in missing a kick that long, but Tucker is second on the league's all-time accuracy list.
And in the battle of New York teams (that actually play in New Jersey), the Giants' Josh Brown, who hadn't missed all season, was wide left on a 48-yarder in overtime, the last play of a 23-20 loss to the Jets.
Failing to make their point
On Sunday alone, there were eight missed extra points. That equals the number of missed PATs in the entire 2014 season.
Who doesn't love these new longer extra points? Besides the people who actually have to kick them, that is.
Just before halftime against Carolina, the Saints made history. Kevin Williams blocked a Panthers extra-point try and teammate Stephone Anthony ran it back 82 yards for a two-point score. It was the first such return by a defensive player on a PAT, a scoring rule put in place this year.
Now that running backs Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington are out with injuries, watch for rookie David Johnson to take a much more prominent role in the Arizona offense. The Cardinals see him as a player in the mold of Chicago's Matt Forte, someone who can run inside and outside, and get out in open space and catch passes.
In Sunday's victory over St. Louis, Johnson ran for 99 yards and caught a touchdown pass. He joined Hall of Fame back Gale Sayers as the only rookies with at least four rushing touchdowns, four receiving touchdowns and a kick-return touchdown in a season.
Johnson, a third-round pick from Northern Iowa, told reporters he was a little nervous Sunday, but only during the first series.
"After that I started getting more comfortable and seeing the holes opening," he said. "Felt like college days where I got a chance to help out my team."
The three teams eyeing relocation to Los Angeles all lost at home.
The Rams lost to Arizona, 27-3, dropping their fifth consecutive game, the last two by a combined 58-10.
San Diego fell to Denver, 17-3, the second consecutive home game in which the Chargers could muster only a field goal.
Oakland put up a much better fight against Kansas City before losing, 34-20, the sixth consecutive win for the Chiefs.
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