New Orleans steals the show, but beware of streaking San Diego
NEW YORK -- Best day of football of the year? Well, at least it was the best set of early games, with the most dramatic missed field goal of 2009, the Saints falling out of a Redwood and landing on their feet,
But I start this morning with a winner in one of the late games, the team on a seven-game winning streak (puny compared to 12-game streaks, of course), and the team all contenders want to see get upset early in the playoffs.
Rather than look at the narrow 30-23 victory in Cleveland with negativity, I look at it as an example of San Diego growing up. The Chargers built a 27-7 lead on a 27-degree wind-chill day, and even though San Diego likely won't face a frigid game in the playoffs, it's good to know the players can handle it if it comes. More likely, San Diego will find a road to the Super Bowl runs through Indianapolis. The Chargers would never say that makes them happy, but they don't have to. The stats say it.
"I don't think that's a team Indianapolis wants to play,'' says
With the most recent game first, the past five San Diego-Indy meetings did not go well for the Colts. How they've gone:
2008 playoff, at San Diego: Chargers 23-17 (OT).
So let's see. The Chargers in 2005 beat the 13-0 Colts in Indy. The Chargers knocked the 13-3 Colts out of the playoffs in 2007 in Indy. The Chargers knocked the 12-4 Colts out of the playoffs in 2008 in San Diego.
I sense a trend.
The Chargers lead the league in matchup problems for defense. On Sunday in Cleveland, San Diego started two 6-foot-5 receivers,
Consider how the Chargers are playing in their seven-game win streak. They are scoring more than one unbeaten team, Indianapolis, in the past seven games, averaging 31 points during the win streak, and defending better than New Orleans, averaging 15 points allowed in their win streak.
"Our maturity level is higher,'' Gates said from Cleveland. "We realize it's all about now. Forget what happened last week, forget what we've got next week. It's now that counts. We've also realized all that stuff about talent doesn't win games for you. Having talent doesn't mean you'll win in the playoffs, and going 14-2 doesn't mean you'll win. We just want to get to the postseason and be playing well when we get there.''
"When he got the interception,'' Meachem said via cell phone postgame, "he had two blockers in front of him. I thought the only way I had a chance to get at him was to knife through the two blockers, to avoid them and just get through them. He looked like he was carrying the ball a little loose. Those DBs aren't used to running with the ball.''
Meachem, a second-year man, hears defensive coordinator
The replay of the day -- and the timeout of the day: On the third play of overtime,
During a timeout, it's perfectly within the rules for the replay official to determine if the play should be reviewed. And Nemmers called for a review. Now, overnight, I watched this replay seven times. I believe it does not meet the most important criterion for being overturned -- namely, that it requires indisputable visual evidence to change the call on the field. The one angle where you can see Sellers upside down, with his elbow either touching the ground or very close to touching the ground, the ball has just been dislodged. It's very, very close. Referee
Now, if the play hadn't been overturned, the Redskins were still 40 yards out of field goal range where you'd trust the kicker. (Then again, would
Payton's about to have a lot more admirers around the United States. He told me Saturday he's not going to take the foot off the accelerator down the stretch, not even if the Saints have homefield advantage clinched in the NFC playoffs. The Saints, instead of taking the last game or two to let players heal for the playoffs, will try to make history if they're in position. They're aiming for a perfect season.
Payton loved what
I'm not saying what the Colts have done over the years -- resting their key players so they'll be fresh for the playoffs when their playoff position can't change -- is wrong. Obviously, fluky plays can happen and
Payton's not going to do that. He thinks his players -- many playoff rookies -- will be energized by going for it. And though you might get the PC answer from most of the players, I can tell you guys like Drew Brees definitely will want to make a run at history. No team has ever gone 19-0; the Patriots came within a velcroed
The landscape changed quite a bit Sunday. New Orleans (12-0) took a two-game lead over 10-2 Minnesota when the Vikes lost in Arizona. For the Saints to lose home-field advantage now, Minnesota would have to go 4-0 down the stretch, and New Orleans would have to lose two of its final four games (all NFC games). Because there's no head-to-head game this year between the Saints and Vikings, the tiebreaker would come down to conference record. My scenario would give the Saints and Vikings 14-2 records, but Minnesota would win homefield by virtue of an 11-1 NFC record, while New Orleans would be 10-2 in the conference.
It's easy to say the Saints have it locked now, but who'd have thought New Orleans could be taken to overtime by the Redskins? New Orleans will play at Atlanta on Sunday -- GM
As much as I've killed the Raiders over the past four or five years, I have to give them credit for a heroic win at Pittsburgh. I'm sure it didn't make up for the Immaculate Reception to
Gradkowski, 10 of 16 for 188 yards and those three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, led the Raiders back from deficits of 10-6, 17-13 and 24-20 in the last period with a brilliant mix of throws on the run and well-placed deep throws from the pocket. In the process, he planted Russell deep on the bench for the rest of the season and may well have put himself in play to contend for the Raiders quarterback job in 2010.
Why not? Oakland has tried the millionaire kid with zero work ethic. Why not try the blue-collar kid from western Pennsylvania and the Mid-American Conference (Toledo) who grew up dreaming of being
Gradkowski plays like a Pittsburgher. According to
"When I'm out there, it's my offense, and that's how I'm going to lead,'' Gradkowski said.
To Raiders fans, Christmas just came early. Gradkowski's their new icon.
Michael Vick, 45 minutes after one of the most memorable games of his star-crossed NFL career, was still so emotional about it that I could almost feel his goosebumps over the phone. The day started with him being booed by the Georgia Dome crowd, but when
"We want Vick! We want Vick!'' came the chant from every corner of the Dome.
"Awesome, awesome,'' Vick said over the phone from Atlanta. "I had chills down my spine. I will never, ever forget this day. To have them say they want me to be a part of their team, their city ... I just appreciate it so much. I appreciate everything about today. This will always be my hometown-away-from-home ...''
In the 34-7 win over the Falcons (to be fair, playing without Matt Ryan, who got standing ovations of his own in this same Dome last year as Vick's heir), Vick finally got to throw the ball downfield. People credit Vick for his athleticism, and justifiably, but I say he's got one of the three best arms in football, and two years in federal custody didn't rob him of that.
In the Eagles' first 11 games, Vick had touched the ball 18 times and generated 74 unspectacular yards. But in the third quarter Sunday, on third-and-one from the Falcons' five, he wriggled through the line for a five-yard touchdown. And after the chant got loud early in the fourth quarter, Reid put him back in the game and Vick threw a bomb up the left seam. It was so perfectly thrown, bisecting double-coverage, that
"We've had that play in the playbook all season, but we haven't called it,'' said Vick. "In practice, I overthrow it every week, but this time, the safety bit on it and he [Brown] went up and got it. Thrilling.''
I told Vick the FOX cameras caught him talking to
It sure sounded good last week when, after an overtime loss at Baltimore dropped the Steelers to 6-5, Pittsburgh coach
Hell Month began for sure at Heinz Field, but not quite the way Tomlin intended. The Steelers allowed a 3-8 team with nothing to play for to go on three long touchdown drives in the last quarter and win a game that put the Steelers in playoff jeopardy. Pittsburgh (6-6) now may have to sweep its final four games (at Cleveland on Thursday night, Green Bay, Baltimore, at Miami) to make the playoffs.
Pittsburgh's shortcomings include: The secondary depth is un-Steeler-like and porous; when
This is the first crisis in Tomlin's three precocious seasons running the Steelers. Starting this morning, everyone will be looking to him to set the tone to save the season. He'd better have something good up his sleeve.
In the past two NFL drafts, teams have used 20 picks in the first two rounds trying to find, at least in part, players to bring the heat on the quarterback. Early results -- which can be dangerous because of the adjustment from college to the pros -- say the crop has been an immense failure. Only one of the 21 defensive ends/outside linebackers picked is averaging more than half a sack per game. That's
I remember seeing Orakpo at the Scouting Combine last February and thinking he had the body of a fifth-year NFL player. That's one reason Washington had Orakpo rated a top-10 player and chose him over a much-needed offensive tackle on draft day. "He's succeeded because of the two things NFL pass-rushers have to have -- speed and explosiveness,'' said Washington VP of football operations
The pass-rushing dunce cap is reserved for
The other honorary dunce caps go collectively to Jacksonville's
The 20 young draftees, and how they've fared in Sackville:
"I'd have to cut him before he cost me my job.''
"He's our knucklehead, and we love him.''
"The commissioner has talked about the risk the owners take. We're not financially invested in ownership, so we don't face that, but we're physically invested in this. What's the price tag for that? Ask [permanently injured Buffalo tight end]
Classic Brady -- he's not afraid of lobbing a bomb, but he'll usually do it wrapped in a nice padded box of respect.
"At some point I think players have to understand that there are certain risks that are involved, and if you decide that you want to go out and play football, then you've got to understand that part of that means you're going to break some bones and you may have some head injuries. But if you try to eliminate all of those things, then we're no longer playing football."
"I'm toward the end of my career. I don't think about one more game defining me, or them throwing me out. I'm thinking about the 50 years with my family after this part of my life. Football takes a huge backseat. I'm going to have 12, 13 years in this game, and 70 out of it. When I think about it that way, it makes the decision a little easier.''
The Pittsburgh kid just might have kayoed his beloved Steelers from the playoffs with a 20-of-33, three-touchdown, no-pick performance in Oakland's 27-24 win at Heinz Field ... all three touchdowns in the final 10 minutes of this shocker. It's what so great about this game. Gradkowski should never, ever beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a game with such big playoff implications. It happened because the Raiders played hard and the Steelers made enough mistakes to let them.
With the Patriots up 21-19 and throwing into the end zone to ice the game with 9:45 to play, Davis, the feisty first-round rookie from Illinois, made a play he'll be telling his grandchildren about someday. He leaped with
It's hard to imagine a punter having a better day than Jones did in a losing cause at Chicago. His seven punts averaged 45.3 yards, and in one of the rarities of this or any NFL season, his net average was longer than gross -- 45.7 yards. That's because the one punt he had returned went for minus-three yards by
Nursing a 24-17 lead with six minutes left, the Giants' punt-return team lined up for a boomer by Dallas'
It's no wonder other coaches study what the Jets do in the running game. "I really like what
I don't mean to doom Shaun Suisham for life, but his missed field goal with two minutes left has to be the gaffe of the year. The snap was slightly high, and the hold not pristine, but the kick has to be made. Just has to. The situation: 'Skins up, 30-23. Two minutes left. Suisham lines up for a chippy from 23 yards out. He makes it, and Washington has the upset of the year in the NFL. It's an extra point! But these are the 2009 Redskins, and Suisham pushed it wide right.
The last time the Colts lost in the regular season came eight days before
But it's interesting looking back. That loss made the Colts 3-4. We all had serious questions about whether Peyton Manning was just too gimpy coming off his two knee procedures -- the first to remove his bursa sac, the second to deal with the staph infection that set in afterward.
What a difference 58 weeks makes.
"Why does Indy insist on resting players when their only SB win came when they played it out 'til the end?''
Amtrak Acela conductor to me, 8:27 a.m. Saturday:
"Fourth-and-two at the 28. Did Belichick do the right thing?''
It never ends.
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 13:
a. The Raiders ought to be called more for lining up in the neutral zone.
b. It must drive NFL people crazy to hear
c. Good reporting by
e. I inadvertently left out the Patriots' throwbacks from the ones I like of the old AFL unis. Great classic jerseys and helmets -- another team that would be smart to go back in time, full-time.
f. What must
g. Not sure the Bears would be too disappointed if
i. I really like
Dungy and Harrison feel it's a bad example to set for the other players, that the leader of the team is jetting off to Vegas on a day off, especially when the team has such a bad record in recent Decembers. I just don't buy it. He was back in the building for treatment Saturday morning after 24 hours in Vegas.
j. Hey Rodney: Congrats on your new daughter,
2. I think he'll get no credit for it other than some nods of thanks from those who own him in fantasy leagues, but everyone in his locker room Sunday knew the kind of day
3. I think it's going to be hard to stop the Saints. Not saying no one can. The Redskins almost did. But since their Week 5 bye, they've scored 48, 46, 35, 30, 28, 38, 38 and 33 points. How about over an eight-week span when your worst day is scoring four touchdowns!
4. I think
I believe Holmgren wants a role like
Would Holmgren, with homes in Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona, be the kind of worker bee at this stage of his life to help a team in need of rebuilding at so many positions on and off the field? Seattle will have three picks in the top 45 of a very rich draft -- its own in the first and second round, and Denver's from a draft-day trade last year. The Seahawks have to plan for a new left tackle with
5. I think Houston owner
6. I think this is what I liked about Week 13:
a. You can't throw a football better than
b. Well, can't throw it better unless you're talking about Tom Brady's touchdown bomb to an in-stride
c. And you can't catch it any better than
d. The best big back in the NFC East right now is not
f. Way to show signs of life,
i. I love imaginative special-teams play, and Seattle special-teams coach
j. Great game,
7. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 13:
c. The Bucs running up 469 yards and scoring six points. Six! They'd better hope the 16-6 loss at Carolina was a growing-pains game for
e. Enough moral victories against good teams, Lions. Time to win one of those.
f. And if
g. That's quite a bit of rust you've accumulated,
8. I think I agree with
9. I think that was one odd game in New Jersey, by the way.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. Am I wrong, or do
c. Why It's Hard To Not Like
d. Coffeenerdness: Two coffee notes for you who love such things. 1. A critical note about the new Starbucks Caramel Brulee latte. As a professional coffee guinea pig, I feel it's my duty to warn you before you dive into the new offerings. It's the most sickeningly sweet drink I've ever had at Starbucks. A nice first few sips, but once the brulee bits dissolve a bit, it adds to the sugary mayhem ... 2. Praise for a great cup of coffee: Milano roast from Bay Area Coffee Company of San Francisco. Now that'll wake you up in the morning. The darker the better for me, and this is a really dark roast with no bitterness.
e. Texas came within a second -- and maybe not fairly -- of not playing for the national championship because of a bizarre and irresponsible bit of clock management at the end of the game. As I watched
f. I don't watch the college game nearly enough to know who's going where next April in the draft, but
g. College Game of the Year: Has to be Cincinnati 45, Pitt 44. Found myself magnetized to the game Saturday afternoon because it had as many momentum swings as any other game in memory.
h. Kudos to former NFLers
"It was a blessing for us,'' said Mahe, just back at his Utah home over the weekend. "What was so incredible was to see the people not waiting for handouts, but pitching together to rebuild before FEMA even got there. It's like what you hear after tornadoes in the midwest. The neighbors just help each other. We were lucky to be able to go to represent the NFL, because there are so many Samoan and Tongans in the league now, and they all want to help.''
i. Congrats, to one of Mary Beth King's former softball teammates, the inimitable