Last weekend was the first time in many moons that the National Football League had seven games on its regular schedule featuring teams with winning records matched against each other.

These very important games occurred the first weekend in December, which usually is “crunch time” in the NFL and should help determine what teams have the best chance of reaching the playoffs, which begin next month.

There even were a few teams—including our Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys—who extended their fading playoff hopes with victories last week. 

The Indianapolis Colts, who went into last weekend with a comfortable two-game lead with four to play over the Texans in the AFC South Division, trailed the scrappy Cleveland Browns for 59 minutes and 28 seconds before quarterback Andrew Luck threw a one-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton with 32 seconds left to pull out a 25-24 win.

The Colts’ timely victory kept their lead over Houston at two games instead of having Sunday’s game with the Texans at Indianapolis being for a tie for first place.

The Texans had trouble in the first half with division bottom-feeder Jacksonville, but came through with 17 unanswered points to keep their playoff hopes alive with a 27-13 win over the scrappy Jaguars.

The Dallas Cowboys, who rarely play well during the month of December, came up with an outstanding performance before a national audience Thursday night at Soldier Field in Chicago and throttled the Bears 41-28 in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated.

The Cowboys’ victory kept them within a game of the NFC East Division Philadelphia, which was stymied by the Seattle Seahawks Sunday afternoon 24-14 and their vaunted Legion of Boom defensive secondary. As a result of the Eagles’ loss, Sunday’s game with the Cowboys will be for sole possession of the division.

The Pittsburgh Steelers upset AFC North Division leader Cincinnati 42-21 to keep their playoff hopes alive with an 8-5 record. The same is true for Baltimore, who upset the three-point favored Miami Dolphins 28-13 and joined the Steelers with an 8-5 mark, one game behind Cincinnati in the standings.

The San Diego Chargers hosted the New England Patriots Sunday night and fell short 24-14 and dropped to 8-5, joining both Pittsburgh and Baltimore in keeping their playoff hopes alive.

Other games involving teams with winning records include division front-runners Denver, which nipped Buffalo 24-17 and extended their lead in the AFC West to two games over San Diego, and Arizona who nudged past Kansas City 17-14 to retain their slim one-game lead over Seattle in the NFC West Division.

Green Bay had little trouble subduing the Atlanta Falcons in the Monday Night Game of the Week and retaining their one-game lead over Detroit in the NFC North Division.

The biggest joke of the NFL has to be the NFC South that is led by Atlanta and New Orleans with dismal 5-8 records. Nobody can figure out what’s wrong with the Saints, except me. I guarantee most of the reason the Saints can’t win is two words—Rob Ryan, the defensive coordinator who is far from a chip off the old block of his dad Buddy Ryan.

Oddly enough, there also are seven games this week involving teams with winning records, including both the Texans and Cowboys. 

             Neither team can afford to lose, but both are on-the-road underdogs. Indianapolis is an early 6½-point favorite over Houston while Philadelphia is favored over Dallas by 3½ points.

Both the Cowboys and Texans have a player on their team who should be among the top candidates for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player awards. 

Dallas running back DeMarco Murray has led the league in rushing the entire season while the Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt is the league’s best defensive player by far and maybe the best one ever. His 14½ sacks so far this season is second in the NFL behind Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil with 16.

But both of these outstanding players probably will be edged out by a quarterback—either Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers or Denver’s Peyton Manning.

Other big games this weekend that might make or break a team’s playoff hopes are San Francisco at Seattle, with the Seahawks a huge 9½-point early favorite, Miami at New England, Green Bay at Buffalo, Cincinnati at Cleveland and Denver at San Diego.

KWICKIES…Houston Texans’ running back Arian Foster rushed for 127 yards on 24 carries in Sunday’s 27-13 victory at Jacksonville, breaking the 1,000 yard barrier for the fourth time in his career and collected his 32nd 100-yard game and the seventh this season, which is one more than Priest Holmes, putting Foster atop the NFL chart for 100-yard rushing games by an undrafted player. Foster, who played at the University of Tennessee, wasn’t one of the 23 running backs picked in the 2009 NFL draft.

And while on the subject of the Texans, wide receiver Andre Johnson, who left the game Sunday with a concussion, needs only four more catches to become the 10th player in NFL history with 1,000 receptions.

Orange’s All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas with has been very instrumental in the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive success in which they have only allowed 20 points in the last three victories. Earl’s personal stats for the year include 71 tackles which is third on the team, 49 solo stops (second), 22 assists and two fumble recoveries, including the one he got Sunday against Philadelphia.

Seven Texas teams and three from Louisiana will be playing in the upcoming bowl season this year. UTEP (7-5) gets things started in the New Mexico Bowl Dec. 20 against Utah State (9-4), Rice (7-5) plays Fresno State (6-7) Dec. 24 in the Hawaii Bowl, Texas A&M (7-5) takes on West Virginia (7-5) in the Liberty Bowl and Texas (6-6) plays Arkansas in the Texas Bowl, both on Dec. 29. TCU (11-1) is matched up with Ole Miss (9-3) in the Peach Bowl Dec. 31, Baylor (11-1) challenges Michigan State (10-2) in the Cotton Bowl Jan. 1 and the University of Houston (7-5) takes on Pittsburgh (6-6) Jan. 2 in the Armed Forces Bowl. Teams from across the Sabine River involved in bowl games include Louisiana Tech, LSU and Louisiana-Lafayette.

One bowl-eligible team that was overlooked by the selection committee was UAB (6-6), probably because its president Ray Watts recently announced he was discontinuing the school’s football program. The decision to shut down the program came after cost projections in the spring “were shockingly high”– like $49 million over the next five years.

This week’s Associated Press Top 25 College Football Poll remained unchanged for the first three places (Alabama, Florida State and Oregon) with No. 4 Baylor and No. 5 Ohio State each moving up one notch while No. 6 TCU for some reason dropped two spots. Michigan State remained No. 7, Mississippi State jumped two spots to No. 8, Ole Miss moved up four places to No. 9 and Georgia Tech came up two slots to No. 10.

JUST BETWEEN US…The first week of December hasn’t stopped the golfers at Sunset Grove Country Club from coming up with some outstanding feats. Kenny Ruane made an eagle-2 from 55 yards out with a pitching wedge on No. 17 Thursday. And just to prove that wasn’t a fluke, Kenny did it again Saturday on the Par-4 No. 11 hole from 145 yards with a five wood. And then within a half-hour Bob Hoepner hit a hole-in-one on the 130-yard Par 3 No. 14 hole with a six-iron. It was Hoepner’s first-ever ace, for which he received a check for $200 because he was a member of the Men’s Golf Association. Witnessing the ace was Craig Couvillion, Ken Ruane, Mike Durci of Shreveport, La. and yours truly.