The Denver Broncos are smarting in the aftermath of their collapse at New England.
But are they smarter?
"I think that's the test of football teams," quarterback Peyton Manning said in the wee hours of Monday morning on the East Coast, after the Broncos blew a 24-point halftime lead at New England to lose, 34-31, in overtime. "I think it would be wrong if guys weren't disappointed and bothered by this loss. So I think you're allowed a night and maybe half the day [Monday] to still be ticked off about it and disappointed.
"That's part of being a professional: [You] learn from it, study the film, learn from the coaches. We did some good things — obviously the running game was great. We had some mistakes, and when you make those mistakes, it's hard to beat good teams on the road."
Besides, the Broncos don't have the luxury of a pity party. They play at Kansas City on Sunday, facing the Chiefs for the second time in three weeks, and this game has major implications for the playoff picture. Both teams are 9-2, the best records in the AFC, and at this point the Broncos have the tiebreaker by virtue of beating the Chiefs on Nov. 17.
The Chiefs are coming off a home defeat to San Diego in which they lost the NFL's most prolific pass-rushing tandem, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, to rapid-fire injuries in the second quarter. Hali suffered a sprained ankle and Houston sustained a dislocated elbow.
Kansas City Coach Andy Reid on Monday described Hali's ankle injury as "slight" but declined to say whether the outside linebacker could practice this week or play in the game. Hali left Arrowhead Stadium on crutches Sunday, but used just one crutch at team headquarters Monday — progress, apparently.
"I think he, the doctors and coaches, everybody, felt better at the MRI," Reid said.
Reid said Houston had too much swelling in his elbow Monday to undergo an MRI exam. It is unclear how long such an injury might sideline Houston, if at all. A similar injury caused Houston Texans defensive tackle J.J. Watt to miss most of training camp last summer, although he wore a brace and didn't miss time during the regular season, ultimately earning defensive-player-of-the-year honors.
Just as the teams with the two best records in the AFC will play each other, so too for the NFC when 10-1 Seattle plays host to 9-2 New Orleans on Monday night.
The last time the Saints played in Seattle, they were the defending Super Bowl champions playing the underdog Seahawks in a Jan. 2011 wild-card game. The Seahawks pulled off a 41-36 upset, and running back Marshawn Lynch had a touchdown that caused such a boisterous reaction from the home crowd that it moved the seismic needle.
This time, the Saints could give the Seahawks problems with all their offensive weapons, especially considering Seattle cornerback Walter Thurmond has been suspended four games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. What's more, according to an NFL.com report, Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner, who served a similar four-game suspension last season, now faces a full one-year suspension for another violation of the substance-abuse policy.
Both the Seahawks and Saints are in prime position to make the playoffs, with Seattle holding a three-game lead in the NFC West, the widest margin in any division.
Wild, wild wild-card
One of the NFL's more intriguing races is the one shaping up for the final seeding in the AFC. It's early, of course, and a lot can change between now and the end of the season. But there are six teams with 5-6 records who most likely will be jockeying for the No. 6 seed: Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Diego, Miami and the New York Jets.
That adds a layer of intrigue to the Steelers' game at Baltimore on Thanksgiving night. The Ravens are 4-1 at home and are coming off a 19-3 victory over the Jets. Pittsburgh, which started 0-4, is coming off a 27-11 victory at Cleveland.