Football is and always will be the ultimate team sport, a highly synchronized series of plays that more often than not requires maximum execution and effort from all 11 players on the field to be successful.
But then there are the difference makers. Especially when the playoff run is within sniffing distance.
Sometimes players are just the most talented on the field. Sometimes an individual can just take over a game or, for that matter, a month.
Think Aaron Rodgers from December on last season. Drew Brees over the same span the season before. Larry Fitzgerald pretty much threw his Cardinals on his back in January 2009 in an improbable Super Bowl run.
Typically, it's a quarterback. They have the easiest chance to take over a game. But not always. In addition to Fitzgerald, there are other examples of non-QBs taking over a stretch drive. The Bears' Devin Hester in 2006-07. Troy Polamalu becoming a full-fledged star during the Steelers' Super Bowl run in 2005-06.
Week 14 will go down as the week of the comeback and the thrilling finish. It was breakneck action in the early, middle and late games. Stunning stuff, really. Eight games were decided eight points or fewer prior to the Monday nighter, and we were treated to some massive clutch-time performances by the Falcons, Texans, Lions, Saints, Patriots, Broncos and Giants. Interesting that perhaps the most starless contender, the 49ers, came up short in this department in losing to the Cardinals.
Games often come down to five or six major plays, and the superstars are usually involved. Here are this season's stars — some obvious, some repeats — who are able to carry a team on their backs and make those game-changing plays:
Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski — There's something perfectly fitting about him scoring the touchdown that broke the season TD mark for tight ends in the endzone marked "ARMY" following Saturday's Army-Navy game. Gronkowski is an Army of One right now, at near-undefendable levels. In a game in which the Patriots couldn't stop Roy Helu and Rex Grossman, which portends poor things for that defense against playoff-caliber offenses, and one where Tom Brady (who was off all game) and his offensive coordinator looked like they wanted to duel with pistols, Gronk saved the day. He now has 25 TDs in his first 29 games, which is the same pace at which Randy Moss began his career. Gronkowski might have to do the same kind of Superman act every game in the postseason if the Patriots want to survive. But be wary. Remember Wes Welker on a similar tear in 2009? Yeah, and he got hurt in a meaningless Week 17 game in Houston. Bet you Bill Belichick thinks long and hard about resting Gronkowski, who plays full tilt every single snap, down the stretch some.
Rodgers — Obvious, right? Of course. Something worries me about that secondary, that left tackle situation (either Derrick Sherrod or Marshall Newhouse; neither seems all that effective), that RB depth and that Greg Jennings knee sprain Sunday, but Rodgers is the rare player who can rise above it all. We've seen it all season. Assuming he stays healthy, there's no reason why he shouldn't do it again. Simply the most dominant player in the NFL this season. Maybe any season.
Brees — Obvious, Part Two, I know. But it's amazing to watch him operate in clutch situations. He's one of the best neck-steppers around, throwing two TD passes in a six-minute span to Marques Colston to turn a 10-9 deficit into a 22-10 lead. Of course, the Saints' defense gave up a few big plays to Jake Locker and let the Titans back into the game. But that's the point: Brees might be good enough to overcome such things. Five straight wins, four over teams with winning records, and the Saints scoring points in 47 of their past 52 quarters shows you the power of Brees.
Jets CB Darrelle Revis — With the news that Jim Leonhard is likely out for the season, Revis' lifting just got heavier. So did that of much-maligned S Eric Smith. But we've seen Revis eliminate half of the field before, and now more than ever, he'll have to dominate. The AFC contenders feature some nasty receivers — the Patriots' Welker and Gronkowski, the Steelers' Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, and the Ravens' Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith among them — and Revis could see time covering any of them. Here's a question: Given the Jets' punt-return nightmares this season when Leonhard wasn't catching them, could Revis get the call? Rex Ryan is willing to win at all costs and put more on his star players' plates in crunch time.
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger — We'll see the effect of the ankle injury. And, as always, forget the stats with him. You get the feeling he could lead his team back to a Super Bowl again in a crowded but hardly daunting AFC field.
Giants QB Eli Manning — He has the clutch-time résumé (20 career fourth-quarter comebacks, six this season), which was on full display Sunday night. Down 12 with 5:41 left, Manning calmly survived defensive breakdowns, bad snaps (from Kevin Boothe, the backup center on his patchwork offensive line) and a huge dropped pass (by Mario Manningham in the endzone) and led two scoring drives to win a season-saving game. That is the definition of carrying a team on his back. He did it Sunday, he did it in the Super Bowl run and he can do it again in this season's playoffs. Manning is having his most complete season to date.
Broncos QB Tim Tebow — Did you think I had forgotten him? Yes, Tebow was Tebow on Sunday, starting out the game ice-cold (3-of-16 passing, 45 yards through the first three quarters) and turning white-hot in the fourth quarter and OT (18-of-24 passing, 191 yards). I think critics rail on Tebow because his incomplete passes often are so badly off target. But it's his completions he makes the most of. Who is Tebow? He's Jimmy Chitwood from "Hoosiers" saying, "I'll make it." He's the anti-LeBron James, the anti-Alex Rodriguez. He's everything you want in a leader, making those around him better and playing his best when the game is on the line. Don't try to explain Tebow, just enjoy him. The Broncos are, and they are 8-5 with six straight wins.
Controversial call of the week
We don't often talk about referees here, and it's not my job to do so most of the time, but Jeff Triplette and his crew botched two horrible calls in the first half of Patriots-Redskins. The fact that the calls appeared to offset each other with matching field goals is immaterial.
The first came on Andre Carter sacking Rex Grossman. Carter had left his feet and was about a foot from Grossman as he released a pass that would be intercepted. But Triplette's crew (can't single him out completely) called roughing the quarterback, wiping out the pick and leading to a Redskins score. It was a bad call. Yes, Carter hit Grossman just above the knee, but he also was being blocked into said knee.
The second was London Fletcher hitting Tom Brady, which was an even worse offense by the officials. Brady started going into his slide after Fletcher left his feet, but the refs gave Brady the Jordan Rules treatment and threw the flag. The Patriots responded with their own field goal.
"Well, at least in my opinion, I thought it was (a) horrible (call)," Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan said. "That's what I saw — what I saw on the replay was a bad call.
"I asked (Triplette) who called it because I didn't agree with it."
Neither did we. Nor did we care for the third-quarter whistle against Patriots NT Vince Wilfork, which was the zebras' worst hour. Redskins RB Evan Royster caught a pass in the flat, stumbled and fell down. He was not touched and was a live runner. Wilfork fell on him, as defenders are wont to do when the opponent is trying to gain yards against them.
But the call was unnecessary roughness on Wilfork despite his helmet not coming close to hitting that of Royster. It's as if the NFL has told the refs: Throw the flag when in doubt.
Dangerous plays are a huge part of the game, and I admire the NFL's desire to prevent them as much as possible. But changing the game to make it more of a finesse brand where quarterbacks are put in a bubble and big players such as Wilfork can't use their greatest asset — size — to their advantage makes this league a weaker one.
The wow factor
This week's edition goes to the AFC South champion Texans, their game defense and their incredible third-string quarterback.
Ladies and gentlemen, T.J. Yates.
Seven straight wins for the Texans overall, and yes, the defense gets a large assist for holding seven straight teams to 20 points or fewer.
But it's the mark of a composed, young player when he can rally from a horrid start to a game and finish the way he did, engineering his second fourth-quarter game-winning drive in as many starts. Sunday he moved the Texans 80 yards without a timeout and hit Kevin Walter for the winning score with two seconds left.
Neither Yates nor the defense was on point early, but the Texans rallied from four turnovers, five sacks allowed and a 13-point halftime deficit.
"It was ugly," said Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, who has to be a Coach of the Year front-runner. "We didn't play well. We turned the ball over. We couldn't stop their running game. It didn't look like we had a chance of getting out of here with a win.
"But we have a young quarterback who believes in what he's doing. He bailed us out of some really tough situations."
The defense boned up, too. After allowing Cedric Benson to rush for 92 yards on 13 first-half carries, he finished with 91 yards on 21 carries. Connor Barwin's strip-sack of Andy Dalton was the catalyst for the comeback, and Yates led the final two scoring drives with guts, determination and no Andre Johnson, who was sidelined.
Is it time we consider the Texans a serious contender? No one is making excuses for them now.
Tebow-mania has watered down the Texans' story a bit nationally, but you get the idea that's just fine with Kubiak, who has a special team on his hands.
Entertainers and icons
Here come the strange, wonderful and confusing Cardinals, mathematically in the playoff race without great QB play.
The Cardinals got off to a 1-6 start that likely will prevent them from making a run at the postseason. But at 6-7 they actually remain in the playoff race and can't be dismissed, not with games remaining vs. the Browns, the suddenly slumping Bengals and the Seahawks.
But perhaps the more fascinating aspect of their team is what is happening at quarterback.
John Skelton is 4-1 now as the main QB. Kevin Kolb is 2-6. Now that doesn't tell the whole story, far from it. Kolb hasn't had a full year in the system, and his recent injuries are a factor in his play.
Skelton has completed only 53.8 percent of his passes and he had three turnovers in the upset of the 49ers this week. That's 10 turnovers in five games' worth of action. But Kolb hasn't been much better in his nine games at 57.7 percent and 11 turnovers.
Kolb remains the starter, and Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt played it safe with him on Sunday when he showed concussion-like symptoms. But there's a story for another day: Would Whisenhunt bench Kolb down the line?
If he felt Skelton gave him a better chance to win, sure he would. If there was one thing we learned from the Kurt Warner-Matt Leinart situation, it's that the coach is going to go with the guy who gives them a chance. It doesn't matter what the team gave up in a trade, used in a draft pick or spent money on.
Right now the Cardinals are in the NFC playoff race — on a wing and a prayer — and Kolb is the starter, if healthy. But Skelton is perhaps creating some interesting discussion for a day in the future.
Ten takeaways of the week
Here are 10 things I took from Week 14:
1. You know that "knee bone connected to the thigh bone" song? Well, it applies to football: You take one part out of the machine and the whole thing goes kablooey. When DeMarco Murray (ankle) went down in the Cowboys' loss to the Giants, so too went the Cowboys' playoff chances. His running made the passing game go, and it eased a defense that is being beaten with shocking frequency of late. Before Murray's breakout, Tony Romo was decidedly un-clutch. But with Murray running well, Romo thrived. Romo had a banner game Sunday, but he won't soon forget his overthrow to a wide-open Miles Austin with 2:20 left. Convention says a healthy Murray gets the ball in those situations. An incalculably huge loss for the Cowboys.
2. Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert both threw interceptions on Sunday, throwing back against the grain and across their bodies. It's a sign that both could use some more incubation. We have this belief that teams out of contention that are playing young quarterbacks is always a good thing, but sometimes you have to save the kids from themselves. In retrospect, the Vikings never should have thrown Ponder out there Sunday. He has battled a hip pointer and clearly wasn't himself early, having not taken many snaps during the week. Had the Vikings played Joe Webb for four quarters, who knows? Maybe they stun the Lions and knock a division rival out of the postseason. The Jaguars won big over the quickly sinking Bucs, but Gabbert's final numbers (19-of-33 passing, 217 yards, two TDs, two INTs) had a cosmetic feel to them. He also fumbled twice and has made only limited improvement this season.
3. Did the Jets' loss to the Broncos in Week 11 snap them out of their funk and into action? Sure seems that way. Since then, they have outscored the opponents 99-53, and the offense has had its best three-game run of the season. The rushing attack is back in full effect, and the Jets have gotten back to dominating up front. But I still worry about that Leonhard injury. It affects the defense and the special teams in a major way. How much can Mark Sanchez and the offense carry this team? We're about to find out.
4. The Chiefs could not have looked worse Sunday. They have nothing to gain by playing Tyler Palko anymore. He has proven he can't lead this team. We might see Kyle Orton in the lineup if he's healthy, or else it could be rookie Ricky Stanzi who gets a chance. Still, it's hardly all QB play. The late-game onside kick attempt — go watch it for yourself — was the worst I might have ever seen. And the defense, which had looked good in seven of the previous eight halves coming into the Jets game, was just sad on Sunday.
5. Just as putrid as the Chiefs' onside attempt was the Raiders' fake-punt incompletion ... down 31 points from their own 28-yard line. The Raiders are dead. Their defensive line has been nonexistent the past two games with the division on the line. The tackling is bad. Darrius Heyward-Bey, who took steps forward earlier this season, has reverted to his earlier form. Carson Palmer is still too turnover-prone. And the penalties (11 more on Sunday for 89 yards), which they sustained for a while, now are biting them on a weekly basis. Done. Toast.
6. The Steelers have to be prepared for not having James Harrison when they play the 49ers in San Francisco. Of course, they also might not have Roethlisberger and C Maurkice Pouncey, both of whom suffered high ankle sprains in the win over the Browns on Thursday. Harrison could be suspended by the NFL for his repeated and willful disregard for NFL rules about blows to the head. Yes, it's his fault. He has been warned time and time again. Harrison is not an unfairly marked man. He's not being typecast. He's a repeat rule breaker. And by verily hitting Colt McCoy with the crown of his facemask, Harrison was selfish. He will have let his team down if Roger Goodell suspends him. Oh yeah, the same Goodell whom Harrison ripped in Men's Journal this summer. Wonder if the commish will remember the feature story this week?
8. Jared Allen now is back in the race for Michael Strahan's sack record of 22½ with a three-sack performance, giving him 17½. I actually think Allen gets it. He has been going fill tilt all season, staying on point amid the torrential losing, and the chase for the mark should keep him properly motivated down the stretch. That said, don't expect any Brett Favre-like favors done by the rival Bears in Week 17 if Allen is one sack away.
9. Speaking of pass rushers, Jason Pierre-Paul is the Giants' best defender. Period. He also might be their MVP if it weren't for Manning and his best season to date. Pierre-Paul's blocked field goal at the end of regulation was a mix of sheer will and jaw-dropping athleticism. His two sacks and eight tackles were all monster plays that kept a leaky Giants defense afloat. What a raw talent he is, with far better instincts than I ever could have imagined.
10. The Lions still don't strike me as a clutch, mentally strong or playoff-ready team right now. Far too many breakdowns — mental and otherwise — in the narrow win over the Vikings for my liking. They have explosive players on both sides of the ball, but I am not sure how much Jim Schwartz's heart-to-heart with his team about being more disciplined really sunk in. It's too bad, because with all their talent, the Lions could be a real threat in the NFC, with the 49ers looking beatable and the NFC East teams clearly showing weaknesses.
Top five, bottom five
My top five and bottom five NFL power-ranking votes this week:
1. Packers — Injuries mounting on offense ... would Mike McCarthy think about sitting players in Week 17 if the No. 1 seed is wrapped up? He should.
2. Ravens — Terrell Suggs with three sacks and three forced fumbles. That's three games of production for most players.
3. Saints — Simply put, more dangerous than the 49ers right now.
4. 49ers — They could make a statement by beating the Steelers on Monday night, but they let lesser teams hang around far too often.
5. Steelers — Would be brutal if they lost Roethlisberger and Pouncey for any extended period.
28. Buccaneers — Do you see Raheem Morris surviving this? I sure don't. Too bad, because he's a talented coach.
29. Jaguars — Congrats, Mel Tucker, on your first career win. Earned it without a lot of starters on the field there at the end.
30. Vikings — Cedric Griffin wants to be cut, you say? I say cut him then.
31. Rams — Does it matter who starts at quarterback Monday night?
32. Colts — Well, they play hard.