Monday December 7th, 2009

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a spectacularly lucky Week 13 when it comes to doses of late-game drama, huge upsets and scintillating finishes.

Mike Tomlin promised to "unleash hell in December,'' but I don't think this is what the Steelers head coach meant. Pittsburgh is in the midst of its own version of hell all right, but that's what a stunning four-game losing streak feels like for the defending Super Bowl champions about now. Every excruciating loss hurts worse than the last one, and none more so than Sunday's 27-24 loss to Oakland at Heinz Field.

The Steelers hadn't lost as many as four in a row since the middle of the 2003 season, but that stat doesn't remotely tell the story of how they let their latest stomach-churner get away. The Raiders and Steelers combined for five lead changes, 35 points, and almost 400 yards of offense in the fourth quarter after Pittsburgh had quietly built a 10-6 lead after three.

But Oakland scored three touchdowns in the final 15 minutes to overcome three different four-point Pittsburgh leads, with rookie receiver Louis Murphy hauling in game-winning 11-yard catch with nine seconds left. It was the fifth time in six losses this season that the Steelers blew a fourth-quarter lead.

The Steelers aren't dead in the water at 6-6 in the AFC wild-card chase, but after losing at Kansas City and home against Oakland in a three-week span, how can you assume any victory for Pittsburgh at this point? Denver (8-4) is two games up on the Steelers with four weeks remaining in the wild-card chase, while Jacksonville (7-5) and Baltimore (6-5 entering Monday night's game at Green Bay) also have better positioning than Pittsburgh as the stretch run continues.

The 2006 Steelers (8-8) were the most recent defending Super Bowl champs to miss the playoffs, and the wrong kind of history appears to be repeating itself in Pittsburgh.

• Well, well, well. Looks like we have an AFC East race after all. The Jets (6-6) beat the Bills in Toronto Thursday night, and the Dolphins (6-6) shocked the Patriots (7-5) in Miami on Sunday, and just like that, the top three teams in the division are all within a game of each other.

So much for the Patriots' vaunted bounce-back factor. And so much for their decade-long ability to win on the road. New England entered play not having lost consecutive games since November 2006, but with two road losses in a span of seven days, at the Saints and at the Dolphins, the Patriots are now on a 1-3 slide and just trying to hang on in a division they once looked like they would easily own in 2009. New England is a mind-boggling 1-5 away from home this season, with its only win against the Bucs in London -- in effect a neutral site.

New England's first four losses this season all came on the road against undefeated teams (Jets, Broncos, Colts and Saints), but the six-loss Dolphins have now pinned one on them too. The Patriots have four winnable games remaining, and might still claim the AFC East at 11-5. But it certainly seems like they have yet to recover from that devastating loss at Indianapolis three weeks ago, when a certain 4th-and-2 call transformed a near-certain win into a crushing defeat.

This much is clear: New England's air of invincibility hasn't really ever returned after the Super Bowl XLII loss to the Giants.

• All week I thought the Saints were vulnerable to an upset at Washington, because it seemed to me that New Orleans played and won its Super Bowl last Monday night at home against New England. Could the 11-0 Saints possibly get back up for a game against the plucky, but 3-8 Redskins? Turns out the answer was no, and then eventually yes.

If New Orleans goes on from here and runs the table to post a 16-0 regular season, this will be the ridiculous, fairy tale victory the Saints had no business earning, but found a way to collect anyway with considerable help from Washington. Down 10 points three different times and missing four defensive starters, the charmed Saints kept rallying all game long, and finally got the break they needed when Redskins kicker Shaun Suisham some how missed a 23-yard game-icing field goal that would have put Washington up by 10 just inside of two minutes.

The 33-30 overtime win clinched the NFC South for the Saints, and puts them another step closer to a perfect season. Like the huge comeback win at Miami in Week 7, the Saints got yet another reminder that no one game is over this season until they say it's over.

And the magic carpet ride continues for Sean Payton and Co. in the Big Easy.

• Well it was fun while it lasted, but the Titans' historic drive from winless to the playoffs is all but over. Tennessee's 27-17 loss at Indianapolis means the best it can do is 9-7, and that's not going to get it done when it comes to the AFC wild-card race. Especially since the Titans now have a 3-7 AFC record, and that's a killer when it comes to tiebreakers.

Tennessee made too many mistakes (two Vince Young interceptions) and failed to cash in on a pair of deep red-zone drives, going for it on fourth down without success both times. The Titans didn't play horribly, but they didn't capitalize on their chances, and this time there was no fourth-quarter Young magic to conjure up. Indianapolis had posted five straight fourth-quarter rallies coming into the game, but Tennessee didn't make it sweat enough to need a sixth.

• The Colts didn't really accomplish much with Sunday's 10-point win over visiting Tennessee. All they did was:

-- Win their 21st consecutive regular season game, tying New England's NFL record, set from 2006-2008. (They can break it next week at home against Denver).

-- Picked up their 12th win for a seventh consecutive season, extending their own league record in that department.

-- Tied the 1990s 49ers for most victories in a decade, with 113. Indy has four more chances to stand alone when it comes to that distinction, and I like their chances.

-- Oh, and did we mention they remained undefeated at 12-0, matching the Saints' start and creeping within one win of the best start in Colts franchise history? Indy's 2005 team started 13-0, then lost two out of last three games to finish 14-2.

• It's just like the Redskins to play so well for most of the game and look like a legitimate NFL team once their season's already lost. Where has this Jason Campbell been all season? His career-high 367 yards and three touchdowns were eventually wasted in the overtime defeat to New Orleans, but Campbell showed he can lead a big-league offense after all. The Redskins put 30 points on the board (their previous high this season was 27 at Denver), and would have had more if Jim Zorn, Sherman Lewis and whomever else is in charge in D.C. hadn't gotten conservative in the fourth quarter.

Campbell wasn't the only Redskins offensive star who had a great day. Washington's 2008 draft class is suddenly looking much better with the emergence of receiver Devin Thomas and tight end Fred Davis. The duo combined for 12 catches for 153 yards and three touchdowns against the Saints. Thomas's seven-reception, 100-yard, two-touchdown game was especially eye-opening, given that he entered Sunday with just one receiving touchdown in the first 27 games of his NFL career.

• But Thomas and Davis weren't even the biggest receiving stories of the day in the Saints-Redskins thriller. New Orleans third-year veteran Robert Meachem has become a certifiable touchdown machine of late. Meachem had two more scores Sunday, and finished with eight catches for 142 yards. He has seven touchdowns in the Saints' past five games.

His 53-yard scoring bomb tied the game at 30-30 with 1:19 remaining in regulation, and that wasn't even his best work of the day. Meachem stripped Redskins defensive back Kareem Moore (who had intercepted Drew Brees) of the ball late in the first half, returning the recovery 44 yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 17-17 at the break.

• Here's a disappointing realization: With the AFC East now tightly bunched at the top, the only remaining head-to-head division game is first place New England at last place Buffalo, in Week 15. That doesn't do us much good, given the logjam is only between the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins.

• I know I'm not going to shock you with this one, but Louis Murphy is definitely the Raiders best rookie receiver. The fourth-round pick out of Florida single-handedly sunk the Steelers on Sunday, with two fourth-quarter touchdown catches, including the 11-yard game-winner with nine seconds left. Murphy's other touchdown was a 75-yarder earlier in the quarter.

Darrius Heyward-Who?

• I would imagine by now that even Al Davis would admit it was the right move to bench JaMarcus Russell in favor of Bruce Gradkowski. The Raiders have upset Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the past three weeks since making the quarterback switch, and Gradkowski threw for a career-high three touchdowns and 308 yards against the Steelers.

• Let me get this straight: the Steelers won convincingly against AFC West bullies San Diego and Denver, but lost to AFC West doormats Kansas City and Oakland? Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin gets a lot of credit for the grip he has on his team, but I'd say some of his magic touch has definitely evaporated this season.

• If I told you Tom Brady started his day by going 14 of 15 for 277 yards and touchdowns of 58 yards to Randy Moss and 81 yards to Sam Aiken, would you think the Patriots could possibly lose that game?

Me either. But New England did lose, largely because Brady went just 5 of 14 for 75 yards and two costly interceptions after his hot start. In fairness, Brady was reportedly playing with a finger injury, and the Dolphins pass rush absolutely killed him at times. Brady was knocked down five times and hurried at least that many times in the first three quarters.

Michael Vick throws for a touchdown and runs for another in his long-anticipated return to the Georgia Dome and it's not even the fifth biggest development in the NFL on this Week 13 Sunday? That's how far Vick has slipped off the radar screen as this season unwinds. Kind of refreshing, to be honest. Hype and Vick have been partners for so long now, I can't really remember when his every move didn't make news.

• Now I know December has arrived. Because the Cowboys are starting to disappear. (Sorry, probably a cheap shot after just one loss. But give them time. They'll make me look prescient).

• So much for Chris Redman's return to relevance. Atlanta just wasn't competitive against Philadelphia without Matt Ryan under center. Not that playing without Michael Turner and multiple other starters helped the Falcons' cause.

• After their loss at Seattle, it's harder than ever to fathom how the 49ers started 3-1 this season. San Francisco had an opportunity to stay within striking distance of Arizona in the NFC West, but couldn't even take care of a Seahawks team it beat comfortably in Week 2.

• I'm not going to spend much time or energy pounding away at the Texans again, because I did that last week. But that loss at Jacksonville just about seals the deal that it's going to be another underachieving season in Houston. After getting their noses two games above .500 for the first time in franchise history, the 5-3 Texans immediately swooned to 5-7 and out of contention.

And while we're at it, whoever had the idea of having Texans running back Chris Brown throw that halfback option pass down near the Jacksonville goal line, better not ever have it again.

• Looks like quarterback controversy time in Kansas City. It's at least a crisis of confidence at the game's most pivotal position. Matt Cassel being benched in favor of Brodie Croyle in the second half of that blowout home loss to Denver is only going to heighten the questions about whether the Chiefs new management team should have awarded the ex-Patriots backup a long-term contract before this season started.

Wonder if Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli is having some serious buyer's remorse, or views Cassel's struggles as necessary growing pains?

• If you're a Broncos fan, the world looks a lot brighter these days than it did in the aftermath of Week 11's debacle at home against San Diego. Denver will make the AFC playoffs as a wild-card entry, and that will make everything about Josh McDaniels' eventful first season in town a success.

• Did I really see Chad Ochocinco wearing a sombrero on the Cincinnati sideline after scoring a touchdown at home against Detroit? Why? Can anyone explain it to me?

• We should all be thankful this holiday season for Rex Ryan and his ability to enliven the NFL head coaching ranks. Anybody willing to call his starting quarterback a "knucklehead'' in a post-game news conference isn't likely to ever start couching his words in the coach-speak that predominates in the league. I happen to think Ryan had every right to blast quarterback Mark Sanchez for diving rather than sliding for that first down in Thursday night's win over Buffalo in Toronto.

I mean, if you're going to go to all the trouble last week of bringing in Yankees manager Joe Girardi to give Sanchez a sliding tutorial, the least the kid could do is slide when the situation calls for it, a mere three days later.

• Sanchez seems to be a news magnet himself in the first 12 games of his NFL career. Whether he's chowing down on a hot dog on the sideline, learning his color-coded play calls, or driving his head coach crazy with his interceptions and his lack of sliding skills, "the Sanchize'' is forever finding his way into the headlines.

• I get that new Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is trying to create some buzz for his club with all the emphasis on glamour and glitz in Miami. You've got a bevy of celebrities with a minority stake of team ownership (Marc Anthony, Gloria Estefan, Serena and Venus Williams, with Fergie being a maybe) and there's a high-profile marketing deal between Jimmy Buffet and the Dolphins. All fine and good.

But I draw the line at trotting out the over-exposed Larry King to do the first-half color commentary on radio Sunday against the Patriots. Kind of a mixed message from Ross on the demographic he's appealing to, wouldn't you say?

• Anybody but me think the guy in all those PlayStation commercials looks a bit like a slightly malevolent version of Roger Goodell? Gonna have to call the commish and see if he's heard that one already.

• Went driving around the Phoenix area a little Saturday night and at one point I was startled by a car blowing past me on the interstate going 100 mph or so.

Then I remembered. The Vikings were in town.

• So long, Barrel Man. I always loved the originality of the Broncos' barrel-chested No. 1 fan, who passed away Saturday at age 69. There'll never be another one like him in Denver, or anywhere else for that matter.

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