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What to know from NFL Week 12: Cowboys squander a chance, and the AFC playoffs get messy

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott exits the field after losing to the Patriots. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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Every week, NFL fans are talking about something the NFL doesn’t want them to talk about. Last weekend, Colin Kaepernick and his controversial workout dominated the league. This week, things returned to normal: Everybody is talking about officiating.

After not overturning pass interference reviews all season, the league office reversed a crucial pass interference call — against the Saints in New Orleans, where the new rule was born. And that was only the second-most-glaring gaffe.

As the Dallas Cowboys picked up a third and one on a desperation drive in New England, an official flagged center Travis Frederick for tripping. Replays showed he bumped into Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower with his leg, but not in a manner anyone familiar with the definition of “tripping” would describe as tripping. Once again, like so many other weeks, officiating was the story.

But officiating was not the only story. The Patriots kept winning, the gooey middle of the AFC kept expanding, and the Philadelphia Eagles managed to hang on in the NFC East despite playing another dreadful game. It was a busy Week 12, and here is what to know:

Jason Garrett blew it. Kicking a field goal on fourth and seven, with roughly six minutes remaining while trailing by seven deep in New England territory, wasn’t the problem. The Cowboys had the wind, their defense was shutting down the Patriots, fourth and seven is death against the Patriots’ defense and, if you don’t want to play for overtime, which you shouldn’t, you need two scores anyway. That particular decision, in a vacuum and given the conditions, was probably a coin flip.

But Garrett still botched that sequence. Starting at second and seven, Garrett called plays as if he needed to pick up all seven yards on that play. He called plays as if he knew he would kick a field goal on fourth down. What were needed were plays that would make fourth down manageable. It wasn’t crazy to kick the field goal, but his risk aversion on prior downs doomed the Cowboys into kicking.

Patriots win a soggy showdown over the Cowboys

The Patriots ended up winning, 13-9, after the terrible tripping call short-circuited Dallas’s final legitimate attempt. They improved to 10-1, ensuring they’ll enter next week holding the top seed in the AFC. The Cowboys missed a chance to put away the Eagles in the NFC East.

The race for the last AFC wild card is a big sloppy pile of mediocrity. In a conference that has been lacking all season, of course the standings were going to look like this, weren’t they? The Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders are 6-5. The Browns, left for dead at the start of the month, have won three in a row and stand 5-6.

The Browns’ shellacking of the Miami Dolphins set up a showdown next week against the Steelers, a rematch of the Thursday night game last week that ended in a brawl. The Steelers barely beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday as Coach Mike Tomlin benched Mason Rudolph for Devlin Hodges, who led Pittsburgh from behind on the strength of a bomb to James Washington. Rudolph sparked the fight by tugging on Myles Garrett’s helmet, which prompted Garrett to rip Rudolph’s helmet off and swing it at his head.

Rudolph avoided a suspension, which, given his performance the past two weeks, doesn’t seem to bother Cleveland.

“I hope he plays,” Browns defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson told reporters. “You see him last game?”

Among that five-team pileup, the hottest team may be the Titans. Since Coach Mike Vrabel benched Marcus Mariota, Ryan Tannehill has led them to a 4-1 record. After scoring 16.3 points per game with Mariota starting, Tennessee has averaged 29.4 with Tannehill. Vrabel may have waited too long to go to Tannehill, but of those five teams, Tennessee is the best now that Tannehill is playing.

The Green Bay Packers don’t look like a Super Bowl contender. Coming off their bye week, the Packers traveled to San Francisco and got steamrolled, 37-8, on Sunday night. They lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga, one of their most important players, to an injury. The Packers are 8-3 and tied with the Minnesota Vikings for first place in the NFC North, but in every way aside from record they do not appear to be serious championship contenders.

Green Bay’s defense, so impressive at the outset of the season, has allowed at least 22 points every game except one since Week 4. The Packers’ point differential is only plus-16. The Packers are not in danger of sliding out of the playoffs — four of their last five games are against the New York Giants, Washington Redskins, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. But they haven’t shown reason for optimism once they make it to January.

The 49ers, meanwhile, weathered the first leg of a brutal stretch with dominance. They have to play at the Baltimore Ravens and at New Orleans in the next two weeks, and they will finish the season in Seattle. The Seahawks are only one game back in the NFC West, but crushing the Packers gave the 49ers needed margin for error. They’ll get to play the Ravens off a short week, and watching their overwhelming defensive line try to contain Lamar Jackson will be fascinating.

This season has beaten Carson Wentz down. On many weeks early this season, Wentz played well, even when it didn’t look like it statistically, amid skeleton supporting casts. He was affected by the injuries and mistakes afflicting Philadelphia’s offense, but he overcame his teammates’ struggles far more often than he contributed to them.

A season of carrying lesser teammates, of always running uphill, showed its effect Sunday against the Seahawks. The Eagles’ offense was terrible in its 17-9 home loss, and Wentz was part of the problem, constantly holding the ball too long, taking sacks and committing turnovers. He finished with two interceptions and two lost fumbles while taking three sacks and throwing for 256 yards, many of them in desperate, helpless circumstances.

The Eagles entered with a diminished receiving crew, with ailments for Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor joining the season-long injury of DeSean Jackson. Their only active wideouts were Jordan Matthews (signed off the street this month and waived Monday), J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (an unproductive rookie), Greg Ward Jr. (never caught an NFL pass before Sunday) and Mack Hollins.

General Manager Howie Roseman bears responsibility for that mess. The ages and injury histories of Jeffery and Jackson made them likely candidates to get hurt. They took Acrega-Whiteside — who has caught five passes for 86 yards all season despite ample opportunity — in the second round with DK Metcalf, Diontae Johnson and Terry McLaurin, among others, still on the board.

On Sunday, Wentz succumbed to his circumstances. That included Coach Doug Pederson’s bizarre play-call on a pivotal third and two, when the Eagles ran a delayed handoff deep in their backfield and Wentz fumbled the exchange.

The Eagles entered the season as Super Bowl contenders and are facing long odds to win a wide-open NFC East. It is not all Wentz’s fault, but he must shoulder some of the blame. In Philadelphia, the debate about whether the Eagles should have signed Nick Foles and shopped Wentz for a draft haul is not going to subside anytime soon.

Chris Godwin is an all-pro candidate. When historians sift through the 2019 NFL season, they will wonder how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could have missed the playoffs with Godwin and Mike Evans lining up out wide.

Evans entered the week second in receiving yardage, and Godwin entered third. And then Godwin erupted in Tampa Bay’s 35-22 victory in Atlanta, catching seven passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns.

Godwin, a 2017 third-round pick out of Penn State, has 1,071 receiving yards, trailing only New Orleans’s Michael Thomas, and an NFL-leading nine touchdown catches on 70 receptions. Godwin’s second touchdown catch was a magic trick — he caught Jameis Winston’s pass after two Falcons tipped it and it deflected off his own leg.

The Raiders laid an egg. Oakland had been one of the most surprising and impressive teams of the season, overcoming the Antonio Brown fiasco from training camp and surging into playoff contention behind Jon Gruden’s reputation-restoring coaching, Derek Carr’s rejuvenation and a dazzling rookie class. Then came this week, when they got demolished by … the Jets?

New York scored a touchdown on its opening drive for the fifth consecutive game, one of the more stunning stats of the season. And the Jets didn’t stop there. The visiting Raiders yielded Sam Darnold’s best game of the season, watching him complete 20 of 29 passes for 315 yards and two scores while also running for a touchdown as they lost, 34-3.

The Raiders’ offense cratered for the second straight week, regressing even further after scoring just 17 points at home against the winless Bengals. In their past six quarters, which came against Cincinnati and the Jets, the Raiders have scored six points.

At 6-5, the Raiders remain in the mix for the AFC’s second wild-card spot, and their victory over the Indianapolis Colts could be meaningful for tiebreaker purposes. But the way they’re playing, not how the AFC field may shake out, is their problem. It’s not good enough to make the playoffs after a promising start to the season.

The Bills keep winning. Here is the list of quarterbacks Buffalo has beaten this season: Darnold, Eli Manning, Andy Dalton, Mariota, Ryan Fitzpatrick (twice), Dwayne Haskins and Brandon Allen. At some point, though, the competition ceases to matter. An 8-3 team is an 8-3 team, and there’s no choice but to respect them.

Attention must be paid to the Bills. They have a two-game lead on a pack of pursuers for the top wild-card spot. Their schedule is a bear, with games left against the Patriots, Ravens and Cowboys, which will come on Thanksgiving. But it has reached the point where the right way to look at it is that teams have to face them. Josh Allen, their second-year quarterback, is a total headache, a powerful, fast runner who is improving his accuracy as a passer.

Also: Frank Gore is the man. In his 15th season, Gore passed Barry Sanders for third in rushing yards. He trails only Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton on the all-time list.

Joey Slye buried the Panthers. Slye has been one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers this season, but on Sunday he snuffed whatever remaining playoff hopes Carolina held. The Panthers fell behind 14-0 and clawed back to tie the score at 31 in the fourth quarter despite Slye missing two extra points. Kickers struggled all day in lousy weather, but Slye had no such excuse in a dome in New Orleans.

With two minutes left, the Panthers set up Slye for a 28-yard field goal in the middle of the field that would have pushed them ahead by three points. Marcus Davenport, usually a defensive end, made a nifty move rushing up the middle and pressured Slye. But still: Slye had basically an old extra point. He shanked the kick, pushing it right outside the upright.

What came next seemed inevitable. Drew Brees navigated the Saints downfield until Wil Lutz nailed a 33-yarder as time expired. The Panthers dropped to 5-6, which in the NFC wild-card race means their season is over. Bring on the questions about Cam Newton and their quarterback situation.