NFL Week 14: Five things we learnt

A look back at this week's action

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The Independent Online

The NFL is in the middle of its fourth quarter and every team is fighting for every win in the hope they can make the playoffs. Zander Swinburne examines the five big talking points from week 14.

Dallas finally gets its winning season

The Dallas Cowboys are back in the play-off race and even have a small milestone to celebrate at the same time. This season will be Dallas’ first winning season since 2009, having beaten Chicago 41-28 on Thursday night to move to 9-4.

Not only did Dallas recover in the race for the NFC East title, but they did so in a manner that will force any prospective opposition to take notice. Sitting behind one of the league’s top offensive lines, quarterback Tony Romo was accurate all night, completing 21 of 26 passes for three touchdowns.

The star of the game, and Dallas’ season, was running back DeMarco Murray. The NFL’s leading rusher was in sublime form, once again bulldozing his way to 179 yards on the ground as well as a touchdown.  He now has a whopping 1,606 yards rushing this season, and with three games left, a 2,000 yard campaign is certainly on the cards. Thursday’s match-up was the type of performance every Dallas fan can feel confident about going into their divisional showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles next week.

With Philadelphia losing 24-14 to the Seahawks on Sunday, the two teams will compete for the NFC East lead next week in what will undoubtedly be one of the most anticipated games of the year. The question for Dallas now is can they handle the expectation?

Somehow the Panthers are in hunt for the playoffs

Last week it was the Bills who emerged out of nowhere to see themselves within reach of a play-off spot, now it’s an even more unlikely team. The NFC South continues to cough up more and more surprises as the now 4-8-1 Carolina Panthers sit just one and a half games behind the leader of their division.

On Sunday the Panthers demolished the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome 41-10 in what is no doubt their most important win of the season. The game was New Orleans’ fourth straight home loss, and the Panthers, led by a born-again Cam Newton, appeared unstoppable, running over the Saints in every way possible. It seems unheard of to think that Carolina, who have just four wins this year, are in reach of a division title, whilst the rest of their conference continues to jostle for a wildcard spot. With just three games left and absolutely everything to play for, the NFC looks set to be a mad scramble all the way to the season’s end.

St Louis are the best worst team in football

The St Louis Rams continue to be one of the strangest teams to watch in the NFL. On Sunday, the Rams recorded their second straight shut-out when they beat the Washington Redskins 24-0.

This is the first time since 1945 that the Rams have achieved this, back when they were the Cleveland Rams. Wide receiver Tavon Austin was sublime on special teams, returning a punt 75 yards for a touchdown while quarterback Sean Hill put in a nice performance, completing 16 of 22 passes.

The Rams are far better than their 6-7 record gives them credit for. One only has to look at some of the teams they've beaten to see they deserve to be better off than they are. Wins over the likes of Denver, Seattle and San Francisco questions whether St Louis remain over achievers or under achievers. Three of their losses were decided by a touchdown or less and so it seems as though a few missed opportunities have left the team staring at a longer off-season than they deserve.

Their chances of making the play-offs are non-existent but they remain a team that’s not only fun to watch but one that can ruin the chances of a couple of other NFC post-season hopefuls.

Seattle have their swagger back

It took more than two thirds of the season to finally get going, but the Seattle Seahawks appear to have returned to their 2013 form. The reigning Super Bowl champs started poorly with a 3-3 record and looked groggy and disconnected on the field.

What made their play all the more disappointing was how they seemed to have lost their swagger, that extra something that maybe them so entertaining to watch. Fast forward a couple of months and Seattle look like the team to beat going into the play-offs. On Sunday, the Seahawks casually dispatched the Philadelphia Eagles 24-14 in an attempt to reduce the gap between themselves and the NFC West division leaders, the Cardinals.

Russell Wilson is now a major threat on offence, punishing teams with his legs as well as his arm, whilst Seattle’s defence looks as powerful as it’s ever been. For a while it looked as though Arizona were going to run away with the division, but with only three games left and Seattle looking for any opportunity to leapfrog into the lead, the Cardinals no doubt will keep an eye an on the second place team.

Each week a different Steelers team shows up

Usually by the mid-point of any NFL season it’s possible to see what kind of team each franchise fields. In the case of the Pittsburgh Steelers, they are just as much of an enigma this week as they were in week one. The Steelers have pulled off some stellar victories, beating the likes of the Colts, the Ravens and now the Bengals 42-21 on Sunday.

Ben Roethlisberger was clinical throughout, throwing for 350 yards and three touchdowns while the Steelers defence did well in subduing a talented Bengals offence in the fourth quarter. The win now puts the Pittsburgh in driving seat to take the AFC North yet their failure to show any consistency is one for concern.

One week everything seems to be clicking on offence, with Roethlisberger throwing for six touchdowns and 500 yards, the next week they’re losing to the likes of the Jets who have the worst secondary in football. Pittsburgh remains one of those teams who have the ability to win out the rest of the season comfortably, it just depends which team shows up.