Sunday December 14th, 2008

Musings, observations and the occasional insight while watching the strange doings of a Week 15 that from start to finish I just didn't understand ...

• If the New York Jets go on to win the AFC East, they should at least have the decency to vote Bills quarterback J.P. Losman a full playoff share. Maybe two. Because it was Losman's role in Sunday's most pivotal play that might very well decide the fate of New York's season, and by extension, the status of Eric Mangini's future employment.

What in the world were the Bills doing having their turnover-prone backup quarterback rolling out to throw the ball from deep in his own territory with a three-point lead to protect and just under two minutes remaining? You know the rest. The predictable happened on the 2nd and 5 play from the Bills' 27. Losman was hit from behind by Jets safety Abram Elam, fumbled the ball and after a mad scramble ensued ... watched helplessly as New York defensive end Shaun Ellis recovered it and lumbered 11 yards for the game-winning touchdown -- thus igniting general pandemonium at Giants Stadium.

The last time we saw a game given away that improbably in East Rutherford, Joe Pisarcik, Larry Csonka and Herman Edwards were involved, and the term "Miracle at the Meadowlands'' was coined.

• I suppose the 9-5 Jets feel incredibly relieved, having dodged a third consecutive loss and maintained at least a share of the division lead with their Houdini act against the Bills. But how can you feel good if you bleed green and white these days?

The blowout home loss to the Broncos? Getting dominated last week at San Francisco? Making a Bills club that entered the game in the throes of a two-month death spiral look like the hungrier, more determined team on Sunday?

That was one tight bunch of Jets I watched against Buffalo, and that tenseness was on full display from Mangini on down to his grizzled quarterback Brett Favre, who finished a shaky 17 of 30 for 207 yards, with two interceptions and one touchdown.

You get the feeling that nothing is going to come easy for New York from here on out. The Jets are headed to Seattle next week, with that 0-3 West Coast record of theirs, and then comes the Week 17 home showdown with Miami. I don't know if I can envision the two more Jets victories it's going to take to win this thing and put a happy ending on what has been a very bumpy, late-season ride for New York.

• I truly believe that a Jets loss Sunday would have resulted in Mangini coaching from the hot seat in the final two weeks, and he might still find his way into such a precarious position before the month is out. But it was going to be either Mangini or Buffalo coach Dick Jauron who faced increased fan unrest coming out of this one, and that's now Jauron's fate.

It's hard to blame Buffalo's frustrated fans. No playoff appearances since 1999, and now that they've slid from that 5-1 start to a desultory 6-8, the Bills are officially dead in the water. It's painful to watch Buffalo play these days. The Bills do whatever it takes to lose. No matter how good their situation may look at any one particular moment in a game, they'll do something to reverse their momentum (see their holding penalty on rookie Leodis McKelvin's potentially game-winning 100-yard kickoff return early in the fourth quarter).

• Well, that ought to staunch the melodrama in Dallas for now ... and simultaneously crank it to life in New York. The Cowboys' 20-8 season-saver against the Giants on Sunday night flipped the script in the NFC East, big time. Now it's New York that looks like it has December problems, losing two in a row in the division and not running the ball with its usual authority, minus Brandon Jacobs. Mix in that New York's receivers suddenly can't create enough space to work, and Tom Coughlin's juggernaut is suddenly mortal.

New York clearly has work to do and two very challenging games on the horizon: at home against Carolina in Week 16 and at Minnesota in Week 17. Don't forget: The Giants haven't even wrapped up a first-round playoff bye just yet.

As for the Cowboys, getting Marion Barber healthy and making sure Tony Romo's back isn't a question mark becomes the top two priorities this week. I'm not buying the sudden outbreak of harmony in Big D; but in this case, last week's locker-room friction at least seemed to bring out a sense of urgency in everyone involved.

• Watching Sunday's action unfold, I was struck by just how many 2007 playoff teams have fallen upon hard times this season. Green Bay, San Diego, Jacksonville and Seattle all won between 11 and 13 games last season and went to the playoffs, but none will return this year. And you can throw Washington, 9-7 a year ago, into that same group.

In addition, two more teams that won a combined 29 games in the regular season in '07 are at least in jeopardy of missing this year's Super Bowl tournament. That would be New England and Dallas. By dropping to 9-5 with that overtime loss at Atlanta, Tampa Bay has become the eighth of last year's 12 playoff teams to be in jeopardy of missing a repeat trip.

That leaves only Tennessee, the Giants, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis as the 2007 playoff teams who appear assured of going back to the postseason.

• Credit to the Chargers, who came back late at Kansas City to somehow win a game they appeared to have little interest in. But as I watched Atlanta running back Michael Turner have another huge day for the Falcons, I couldn't help but wonder if San Diego knows it kept the wrong Turner this offseason?

• More and more I'm thinking Chargers general manager A.J. Smith will probably decide to give Norv Turner a third season in San Diego. But I'm not sure there's more than his own personal pride keeping him from making a change. Admitting a mistake is never easy, but Smith can't look at the Chargers these days and see the team he thought he had built.

And I say that having thought Turner was a good hire for San Diego in early 2007, in the wake of Marty Schottenheimer's ugly departure.

• Then again, I thought the same thing of fellow three-time NFL head coach Wade Phillips' arrival in Dallas about the same time. And that one hasn't worked out either, for roughly the same reasons. The Chargers and Cowboys are talented teams, sure, but dangerously devoid of leadership and direction.

• What a brutal week for the Bucs. They were this close to having a hammerlock on the NFC South title Monday night at Carolina -- forging a tie in the fourth quarter -- and now they've lost back to back division road games in a span of six days and might have to fight for their playoff lives.

Oh, and about those 474 rushing yards that Tampa Bay's vaunted defense just allowed to the Panthers and Falcons? Maybe it's not the worst thing in the world that Monte Kiffin plans to slip off to the University of Tennessee to be his son's defensive coordinator.

• Bucs receiver Antonio Bryant -- what a playmaker he finally has become after all these years -- and Falcons head coach Mike Smith going nose-to-face mask on the sideline? What was that about?

Smith is a fiery, emotional coach, and it appeared to me that he was definitely taking exception to one of Bryant's on-field decisions.

• You know who had to be crestfallen watching the Bucs come so close to pulling that Falcons upset in Atlanta, don't you? That would be Eagles fans. Philadelphia needs the Falcons to lose at least once in order for its dream of running the table and getting into the playoffs at 10-5-1 to come true.

• How ironic it is that New England was at Oakland on Sunday? It was at Oakland that Brett Favre had one of his best and most memorable games ever -- that Monday-nighter against the Raiders in the days just after his father's death in December 2003. Five years almost to the day, Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel just repeated the accomplishment, playing superbly (four touchdowns) through the pain of losing his father early last week.

• With just 77 yards on 25 carries, barely 3 yards a pop, Redskins running back Clinton Portis shouldn't have much to say this week about his head coach's play-calling. Portis got his chance to put up Sunday in Cincinnati, and he didn't. Now he should shut up.

• The Redskins will keep having problems in their locker room of the Portis sort as long as Washington owner Daniel Snyder allows his team's star players to undercut anyone in a position of authority whenever they feel aggrieved.

Portis is just trying the same act that used to work so effectively for LaVar Arrington.

• Did you ever think you'd see Cedric Benson with a 79-yard gain at this point in his underachieving and controversial career? As the Bengals lead running back in the season's second half, the ex-Texas standout has actually rejuvenated his reputation a bit.

I know this much: His 21 carries for 73 yards, and three catches for 88 yards, including that 79-yarder, made a much bigger impact than anything Portis did in Cincinnati's upset of Washington on Sunday.

• Kicking field goals, by and large, will get you beat in the NFL. Take the San Francisco-Miami game Sunday. The 49ers dominated the Dolphins in first downs (24-11), total plays (79-42) and time of possession (38:13 to 21:47). But San Francisco kicked three Joe Nedney field goals, and Miami scored a pair of first-half touchdowns, and when it was all over, the Dolphins won 14-9.

Joey Porter always had a lot to say, even when he wasn't having a monster season. Can you imagine how chatty he must be this year, with an NFL-best 17½ sacks? Porter has to be the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year, right? Although Chad Pennington, Antonio Bryant and Kerry Collins might have something to say about that.

Rod Marinelli's Lions appear headed for infamy, but you can't say they've quit on him in December. Detroit has played Minnesota and Indy very hard the past two weeks, and you have to think the Lions have a decent shot to end their nightmare at home next week against the demoralized Saints.

New Orleans is just 1-6 on the road this season, and don't forget, the Saints were the team the 1976-77 Bucs finally beat after losing 26 games in a row at the inception of the franchise.

• Do we have ourselves a quarterback controversy in Minnesota if Gus Frerotte is healthy in time for next month's playoffs? We shouldn't. It's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, and Tarvaris Jackson's relief win last week against the Lions, and his four-touchdown showing Sunday at Arizona are all I would need to see.

• I'll say it again: The Cardinals aren't anyone's idea of a tough draw in the NFC playoffs. They got just-happy-to-be-there written all over them in January.

• And while we're at it, Denver is the other likely western champion that doesn't scare anyone as the playoffs loom. The up-and-down Broncos basically were a no-show at Carolina on Sunday, despite being motivated by the fact that they could have clinched the AFC West.

• File this one as well under the what-were-they-thinking category? Titans head coach Jeff Fisher passes up a potential game-winning 49-yard Rob Bironas field goal attempt with a one-point deficit and about two minutes remaining, opting to throw a fairly low-percentage pass on 4th-and-3?

And maybe an even stranger call was Fisher electing to onside kick with two seconds left in the first half, with Titans quarterback Kerry Collins then taking a knee for minus-1 yard to the Tennessee 41 on the ensuing play.

What was the point?

• I haven't researched this as thoroughly as I should have, but my growing sense is Houston is the kind of team that truly only plays up to expectations after it has systematically lowered those same expectations with disappointing early season losses.

In other words, the Texans are only dangerous after they've played their way out of things.

• But that Andre Johnson, he's pretty good. The Texans' all-world receiver set a team record with 11 catches for a career-best 207 yards against the Titans, and Tennessee has one of the better secondaries in the NFL. I haven't seen anyone truly cover Johnson in weeks and weeks.

• I know Philip Rivers has absolutely boffo statistics this season, but I really don't know when exactly he rolls up all these numbers. Every time I watch him play this season he never makes a play.

To look at Rivers' 28 touchdown passes, 3,515 yards passing, and just 11 interceptions, with a quarterback rating in triple digits, you'd think the Chargers would be 11-3 material this season.

• I'm sure you've noticed by now, but there's not many good teams that play games starting at 1 p.m. ET anymore. There were nine early games in Week 15, and other than the Titans and Colts, they weren't many big winners on display.

• Quite the non-crowd at the Chargers-Chiefs. Every time they showed a shot of the near-empty stands in Kansas City, it looked like Friends and Family day at Arrowhead Stadium.

Not that I don't understand. It was cold. And the Chargers and Chiefs owned a combined seven wins entering play.

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