Sunday November 18th, 2007

BALTIMORE -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as I try to fathom the quirky, once-in-a-lifetime bounce of the Phil Dawson-kicked ball that I witnessed at the close of regulation in the Browns-Ravens instant classic ...

• The coming-up-small award for the week goes unanimously to the suddenly listless Lions, who are starting to prove their 6-2 first half of the season was a case of fraud being perpetrated against a weak NFC field -- and the rest of us as well.

Nobody had more to play for in Week 11 than Detroit, which was home against the Giants, the team it was tied for atop the NFC wild-card standings at 6-3. But nobody did less with their opportunity than the Lions, who fell 16-10 to the G-Men and head into their big Thanksgiving Day showdown against first-place Green Bay (9-1) with all the momentum of Barry Bonds' baseball career.

Lions punter Nick Harris had a great day, booming six kicks for a 43.2 yard average, including four punts inside the 20. Other than that, Detroit proved only that last week's 31-21 egg-laying at Arizona was a mere taste of things to come.

Just two weeks ago, the Lions were 6-2 and looked like a solid bet to end a playoff drought that dates to 1999, when Bobby Ross was still coaching in Motown. But that was then. Now? Not so much. I get the feeling that by mid-Thursday afternoon, after the Packers get through feasting on them, the Lions will be 6-5, in the throes of a three-game losing streak, and staring directly into the abyss of a second-half schedule that's anything but soft.

Detroit still has both home and road games against the mojo-laden Packers, in addition to visits from Dallas and Kansas City, and trips to Minnesota and San Diego. Suddenly I'm seeing no more than two Lions wins in that stretch, which would mean Detroit would reverse its 6-2 first half record and finish a perfectly mediocre 8-8. Even in the NFC, that's probably not going to get the Marinelli/Millen-men into January's Super Bowl tournament.

The fun may not be completely over in Detroit this season, but as Thanksgiving week looms, the Lions are fading fast.

• On the flip side of Sunday's Giants-Lions affair, that was a big step toward warding off another patented second-half downward spiral that New York took in Ford Field. Credit to the Giants' defense, especially defensive end Michael Strahan, who went all Osi Umenyiora on Jon Kitna, sacking the Lions QB three times.

But don't overlook the quietly efficient game that Eli Manning turned in. He threw for 283 yards on 28-of-39 passing, but more importantly, he was turnover free with one touchdown pass. Kitna completed 28 of 43 passes for a gaudy 377 yards, but he was picked off three times by New York.

• Call 'em the dreadful dozen. And John Beck is now one of them. The Dolphins rookie on Sunday in Philadelphia became the 12th mere mortal to start at quarterback since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season.

As debuts go, Beck didn't make anybody forget Jay Fiedler just yet. He was a ho-hum 9-of-22 for 109 yards passing, and the winless Dolphins didn't generate an offensive point in their 17-7 loss to the Eagles. And that was the good news.

The bad news? I'm starting to think these Dolphins, at 0-10, have a real shot at running the table in reverse, losing to a degree that no NFL team has ever lost before. How cool would it be if the Patriots and the Dolphins provided perfectly historic bookend seasons in the AFC East? You realize, of course, that no team has ever had either a 16-game divisional lead (as New England would) or a 16-game divisional deficit (Miami's potential fate). I knew you did.

• It took them 11 weeks to finally get it done this season, but the Eagles are at last at .500 and in position to at least make a wild-card push in the sad-sack NFC.

The Eagles shouldn't go printing those playoff tickets just yet, however. In their final six games, they're at New England, at Dallas and at New Orleans, with challenging home games against the Giants, Seattle and Buffalo to boot.

• Wow. Make that a double wow. Adam Vinatieri is suddenly a 50-50 bet. The once-invincible kicker missed two more field goal tries this week, and actually got booed by the home crowd in Indy. Vinatieri was wide right from 49 yards and wide left from 38, but he did redeem himself somewhat, converting from 27 and 24 yards -- the latter providing the game-winning points with four seconds left in the Colts' 13-10 nipping of the Chiefs.

Did you ever think you'd watch the NFL long enough to see Vinatieri become a coin flip on anything in chip-shot range?

• Not a bad showcase game by forgotten Vikings running back Chester Taylor in Minnesota. While Adrian Peterson has largely made Taylor -- a 1,200-plus-yard rusher in 2006 -- an afterthought, somebody who needs a lead running back in 2008 should keep the Vikings number on speed dial this offseason.

With Peterson out nursing his knee sprain, Taylor churned for 164 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries, and also caught three passes for 38 yards in Minnesota's 29-22 conquest of visiting Oakland.

• I don't know what I found more shocking, that Vikings receiver Sidney Rice threw a 79-yard pass on Minnesota's first drive of the day against Oakland, or that the Vikings' usually invisible tight end Visanthe Shiancoe caught it? Rice actually finished 2-of-2 for 94 yards passing, and if that keeps up, Minnesota may threaten to start him at quarterback.

Brett Favre clearly digs being the youngest quarterback on the field these days. The Packers' 38-year-old legend upstaged his elder on Sunday, handily out-doing Carolina quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who turned 44 on Tuesday.

Favre threw another three touchdown passes, and had no interceptions in Green Bay's 31-17 defeat of the Panthers. Old man Vinny didn't exactly embarrass himself, passing for 258 yards, with a pair of touchdowns and two interceptions.

• Who said the Dolphins can't draft? Miami's 2006 first-round pick, defensive back Jason Allen, twice picked off Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb in the Philly win. They were Allen's first two interceptions this season, and represents twice as many as he had as a rookie last year.

Ted Ginn Jr., Miami's first-round pick this year, had a strong game for the Dolphins. His 87-yard punt return provided Miami's only points, and he also had four catches for 52 yards, and two kickoff returns for 52 yards.

Ginn earlier this season had two kickoff returns that went for touchdowns, but both were called back by penalties.

What is it about getting through mid-November healthy that McNabb can't seem to manage? For the third time in six seasons (2002, 2006, 2007), McNabb has suffered a right leg injury in a mid-November home game. This time, the ankle he sprained won't result in prematurely ending McNabb's season. But you still have to wonder if backup A.J. Feeley -- who won Sunday's game in relief -- winds up playing the role of Jeff Garcia at some point down the season's backstretch?

• On my scorecard, I had Mario Williams a clear winner on points. The Texans defensive end had a sack of Drew Brees, and he caused a fumble on the play. Williams finished with three tackles and was part of a Houston defense that held the potent Saints offense to just 10 points in the Texans' 23-10 win.

Williams' opponent, Saints running back Reggie Bush, didn't come up quite so large against the team that chose Williams rather than him first overall in 2006. Bush had 34 yards rushing on 15 carries, and added a dozen catches for 70 yards. His long gain against the Texans went for just 11 yards, and he fumbled away a Saints drive at the Houston 1.

• If only Oakland quarterback Daunte Culpepper could play against one of his former teams every week. He'd be a Pro Bowl-level talent once again. He didn't get revenge on the Vikings with a victory on Sunday, but his 344 yards passing wasn't too shabby. For the record, the Vikings did sack Culpepper four times, and he was responsible for a safety when he was called for intentional grounding in his own end zone.

• I'm here to tell you, that Joshua Cribbs, he's a beast. The Browns absolutely, positively have to find more ways to get their third-year return man/receiver on the field.

• Not only do the Bengals feature one of the NFL's worst defenses, but also their once-powerful offense just isn't all that any more. Four interceptions for Carson Palmer? What a tease the Queen City kitties turned out to be.

• How's that Byron Leftwich starting call working out for you so far, Bobby Petrino? Looks like Joey Harrington's your guy this year, whether you want him to be or not.

• I'm beginning to come to grips with the idea that Tampa Bay is going to win the NFC South simply because no one else remotely wants to. The Bucs schedule over the season's final six weeks isn't exactly filled with Super Bowl contenders: Washington, at New Orleans, at Houston, Atlanta, at San Francisco, and Carolina.

Congrats, Jon Gruden. You have officially saved your bacon.

• Think about this: If the Broncos can somehow beat the Titans at Invesco on Monday night, Denver is tied with underachieving San Diego for the AFC West lead at 5-5.

The Broncos this season have been beaten 41-3 by San Diego and 44-7 by Detroit. I'm not seeing the championship timber.

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