Sunday December 16th, 2007

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Musings, observations, and the occasional insight as I watch the snowballs fly at freezing Gillette Stadium ...

• It appears their magic has just about run out when it comes to protecting the singular legacy of their undefeated season, but the 1972 Dolphins on Sunday still had enough juice to end one more team's perfect season.

No, not the 14-0 Patriots. But you can give the old guys in Miami a big assist in helping ensure that this year's Dolphins squad isn't the first 0-16 club in NFL history. Miami's 22-16 overtime win at home against Baltimore on Sunday came after Don Shula and his '72 Dolphins were honored at halftime, which must have been the needed karma for Cam Cameron and Co. to win their long-awaited first game of the season.

As a lover of symmetry, I have to admit a certain amount of disappointment that Miami at New England next week won't be 0-14 versus 14-0. But hey, the Patriots march to perfection is probably enough history for one NFL season, and there's another part of me that's happy to see the legacy of the bumbling 1976 Bucs live on in infamy.

Think maybe Lee Roy Selmon and cohorts will be popping some champagne corks tonight?

• How you neglect to cover the always-dangerous Dolphins receiver Greg Camarillo (who?) in overtime is beyond me.

I had a hard time even typing that sentence with a straight face.

• You just had to know that Brian Billick's decision to not go for the game-winning touchdown on 4th-and-goal from the 1 in the final seconds of regulation would come back to bite the Ravens in the hind quarters. Rather than hand Willis McGahee the ball three feet away from victory, Billick opted to have Matt Stover kick a game-tying 18-yard field goal with eight seconds left, rolling the dice on winning in overtime.

That's how badly the pressure was on Baltimore (and every other team that has played Miami lately) to not become the Dolphins' first victim. Going up against a winless team this late in the season is a no-win situation; because if you win, you're supposed to ... and if you lose, ignominy is your fate.

I know it was reported last week that Billick was told by Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti that his job was safe for 2008, but I wonder if the humiliating loss to the Dolphins -- Baltimore's franchise-worst eighth in a row -- could change the dynamics? Could Bisciotti change his mind and make a run at either Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett or Bill Cowher? I get the feeling the Ravens' coaching situation still might have some fluidity to it.

• I probably should have learned my lesson on the Saints after both talking them up and then prematurely burying them this season. But the more I size up the NFC wild-card race, they're in pretty good position after clawing their way back to 7-7 with a 31-24 defeat of Arizona at the Superdome.

New Orleans trails the 7-6 Vikings by one-half game for the second and final NFC wild-card berth; and if the Saints can get a little help from Kyle Orton and the Bears on Monday night in Minnesota, they could be in the No. 6 slot by early Tuesday morning. That's because the Saints' 6-4 conference record is better than the NFC marks of the other wild-card contenders, giving them a pivotal tiebreaking edge for the conference's final berth.

Minnesota is 5-5 in the NFC before the Bears game. Washington (6-7) is 4-5 in the conference entering its Sunday-nighter at the Giants. Detroit (6-8) is 4-7 in the NFC. The Saints close with a home game next week against the struggling Eagles, then travel to Chicago in a Week 17 rematch of last year's NFC title game. By comparison, Minnesota has Washington at home in Week 16, before a Week 17 trip to Denver.

Don't forget about the Saints. Somehow, some way, they're not done yet.

• For a team I accused two weeks ago of never winning a truly big game, that was a pretty large showing by the warm-weather Jaguars in snowy Pittsburgh, where the Steelers had been unbeaten this season at Heinz Field.

Jacksonville really has never played like a soft, Sun Belt team at any point under head coach Jack Del Rio. But it was impressive the way quarterback David Garrard threw the ball in the elements, with three touchdowns and just one interception. At 10-4, the Jags are a headed for being a heck of a strong No. 5 seed in the AFC.

• As for the supposedly tough-minded Steelers, Mike Tomlin's club is looking a bit more like the pretenders I thought they were. Pittsburgh appeared to be a solid bet for the AFC's No. 3 seed two weeks ago, but after losses at New England and against Jacksonville, the Steelers (9-5) have a fight on their hands with Cleveland (9-5) for the AFC North title.

• I just may be able to die in peace now. The Bucs have returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Big deal? Yeah, considering that Tampa Bay is in its 32nd season as a franchise, and Micheal Spurlock's 90-yard scoring return against the Falcons was the first of its kind in team history. By my quick count, the Bucs were playing their 498th regular season in franchise history on Sunday.

Ironically enough, the Bucs had two kickoff return touchdown in their very first preseason of 1976. Isaac Hagins had a 92-yarder and a 102-yarder a week apart that preseason. According to the website PointofNoReturns.com, which is devoted entirely to the Bucs' kickoff return touchdown-less streak, the Bucs, through last week's game at Houston, had returned 1,864 regular-season kickoffs, and another 55 in the playoffs, without scoring. The site says the Bucs' streak lasted 11,408 days before Spurlock put an end to it in the second quarter at home against Atlanta.

Amazing.

• Every time I saw some highlights from that wonderful Bills-Browns snow-fest in Cleveland, I thought I was watching the 1948 NFL Championship Game in Philadelphia, with Steve Van Buren running wild.

The league is so smart to schedule a handful of those snow games every year. The NFL, it thinks of everything.

• San Francisco's upset home win over Cincinnati on Saturday night makes you wonder about the judgment of the 49ers offensive coaching staff, doesn't it? If Niners third-string quarterback Shaun Hill is capable of playing that efficiently -- 21-of-28 passing for 197 yards, with one touchdown pass and a 3-yard bootleg scoring run, what was he doing stuck behind both starter Alex Smith and backup Trent Dilfer, as San Francisco's season swirled down the tubes the last three months?

• And speaking of quarterbacks who maybe should have been playing this season, I'll ask it once again: Is Sage Rosenfels working his way into competition with starter Matt Schaub in Houston? It's not like Rosenfels is a grizzled vet. He's only 29.

• I've been waiting most of the season to see the Panthers give rookie quarterback Matt Moore his shot to start. After watching Carolina upset NFC West-leading Seattle behind him on Sunday, I'd be shocked if coach John Fox didn't make Moore -- his fourth No. 1 QB of the season -- his guy for the final two games.

Forget Vinny, and play the kid.

• This might be the most astounding statistic I've heard all season: When Hill led the 49ers on a 76-yard touchdown drive on their opening possession, it marked San Francisco's first lead at home since a Week 1 victory over Arizona. Put another way, 49ers fans didn't enjoy the sight of their team in the lead at Monster Park for 97 days, a day shy of 14 weeks.

• How pathetic has the Bengals defense been once again this season? The 49ers, protecting a seven-point lead with a little more than two minutes remaining Saturday night, ran Frank Gore on third-and-9 draw play -- and gained 10 yards, allowing them to kill the rest of the clock on the timeout-less Bengals (5-9).

And did we mention that San Francisco's offense is ranked dead last in the NFL in points, total yards, and passing, with a No. 27-ranked rushing game? Now that Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis is assured his first losing season of his five-year Bengals tenure, will anything finally change about the way they approach defense in the Queen City?

• While the Falcons players, to a man last week, seemed to support the naming of Emmitt Thomas as the team's interim head coach in the wake of Bobby Petrino's resignation, that support apparently didn't extend to the field at Tampa Bay on Sunday.

Atlanta's 37-3 surrender to the Bucs wasn't the way Thomas probably dreamt his first game as an NFL head coach would unfold.

• Though they seemed inspired by the change, I'm not too sure about the Texans' red-on-red uniform combination Thursday night against Denver. I just think it's always tough to pull off the giant blood clot look with any sense of style.

• When Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga says he's "not actively looking to sell'' the team, that's the same thing as saying he's listening to any and all offers from interested parties, right? What I'm not sure of, given the desultory state of the winless Dolphins these days, do Miami fans feel hopeful or fearful about Huizenga's For Sale sign?

• I can't get over how much lighter Eric Mangini looks this season. And it's only accentuates his weight loss when he wears all black like he did on Sunday in frosty Foxboro. You wonder how he's dieting during the season, which coaches say is always tough to do. Then again, maybe he's on a fast until the Jets win again.

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