Jets, Cowboys and Patriots: Key takeaways from Sunday's NFL games

Geno Smith at NFL Draft

The highlight of the UK's televised schedule for Week 12 of the NFL season was the latest instalment in Peyton Manning's rivalry with the New England Patriots

While that one certainly didn't disappoint, there was also a tense NFC East clash to savour, along with a fierce defensive struggle in the AFC.

Here are the key takeaways from Sunday's screened games.

Denver Broncos 31-34 New England Patriots: Bill Belichick used the blitz to shut down Peyton Manning in the second half

It is not often that defenses even risk the blitz against Peyton Manning, let alone shut him down with it. But that is just what the New England Patriots did during the second half of their titanic overtime clash with the Denver Broncos.

With his team down by 24, head coach Bill Belichick attacked Manning with a consistent barrage of blitzes. The tactic flustered Manning and forced him into the kind of mistakes he always seems to make in New England.

In one example from the third quarter, Belichick used his 4-2-5 nickel defense to get pressure through the middle against Manning on 3rd-and-5 at the Denver 42-yard line.

He stacked linebackers Dane Fletcher and rookie Jamie Collins in the A-gaps either side of the center. At the snap, the two ran a cross blitz, with Fletcher going first and Collins looping around him.

It was Collins who broke free to sack Manning for an eight-yard loss and force a punt.

Behind the pressure, the secondary played Cover 2 Man, a pair of deep safeties behind underneath man coverage. That allowed the Pats to be physical with Manning's receivers at the line and force him to hold the ball under pressure.

Early in the fourth quarter, Belichick varied his pressure concepts to produce a huge play. His defense again aligned in a 4-2-5 nickel look.

The Broncos put Eric Decker and ex-Patriot Wes Welker on one side, with Welker in the slot. Kyle Arrington was covering Welker.

At the snap, Arrington blitzed off the slot and came free at Manning. His pressure obscured the quarterback's view as he threw an out pass toward Decker.

The errant throw was intercepted by rookie Logan Ryan. The Patriots scored three plays later to go ahead for the first time.

Behind the blitz, Belichick had again shown a Cover 2 Man scheme. But one of those deep safeties, Devin McCourty, rotated down to cover Welker as Arrington blitzed.

As they did throughout the second half, the Patriots combined their pressure with aggressive coverage. Ryan quickly got his hands on Decker to jam him at the line and disrupt his route, while McCourty flattened Welker across the middle.

New England's comeback from a 24-point deficit was inspired by their blitz-happy defense holding Manning and the Broncos to just seven points after intermission.

Dallas Cowboys 24-21 New York Giants: Clutch Performance from Tony Romo makes Cowboys favourites in the NFC East

Tony Romo has often been criticised for a failure to deliver in clutch situations. But the Dallas Cowboys quarterback refuted those claims by leading an assured game-winning drive against the New York Giants.

It featured several critical third-down conversions via passes from Romo. He twice connected with wideout Dez Bryant to keep the drive alive.

But his most clutch play was a 13-yard strike to slot receiver Cole Beasley. That helped position kicker Dan Bailey to win the game.

The victory makes the Cowboys favourites to win the NFC East. Four wins in the division puts them in the strongest position.

Only a spectacular collapse in the next five games can stop Dallas taking the East.

New York Jets 3-19 Baltimore Ravens: If the Jets don't have confidence in Geno Smith, he shouldn't be playing

The New York Jets were alarmingly bad on offense against the Baltimore Ravens. In particular, rookie quarterback Geno Smith failed to make quick decisions and escape pressure.

But the real issue was the obvious lack of confidence New York's coaches have in their quarterback. Head coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg simply refused to let Smith take any chances.

They were instead content to lean too heavily on the running game and use trickery from Wildcat packages to try and manufacture big plays.

A cautious game plan can be a smart ploy with a young quarterback, especially one who leads the NFL in turnovers. But the Jets approach is so ultra-conservative that it puts too much pressure on their stellar defense to win games.

There is little point to having Smith under center if it means the Jets restraining their offense this much.

image: © Zennie Abraham