Monday December 14th, 2009

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a compelling Week 14 that featured numerous close calls, but no real signature upsets -- at least after the lowly Browns knocked the humbled Steelers from the throne Thursday night in Cleveland ...

• As it turns out, the sunny Sunday afternoon they spent in the Sunshine State was a very productive chunk of time indeed for the AFC East wild-card contenders, with the resurgent Jets climbing back over .500 with a 26-3 win at Tampa Bay, and the Dolphins gutting out a 14-10 victory in a virtual elimination-type game at Jacksonville.

Outside of the three-team tug-of-war going on in the NFC East, the battle for what figures to the be AFC's last wild-card berth holds the most potential for intrigue in the regular season's final three weeks. Sunday at least provided some clarity, even if the four teams fighting for that one spot were still in a 7-6 clump at the end of the weekend.

In order, here's how I break down the playoff chances of the four AFC wild-card contenders:

1. Baltimore (7-6): 50 percent shot of qualifying -- All in all, it was a great Week 13 for the Ravens. The Steelers lost, the Jaguars lost, the Broncos lost, and John Harbaugh's club took out its recent frustrations by beating the Lions senseless, 48-3, in the rain at Baltimore. The Ravens likely have to win out to make the playoffs, but they own the most conducive schedule for that among the top four wild-card contenders, with three losing teams remaining: home against Chicago (5-8), at Pittsburgh (6-7), and at Oakland (4-8). True, at the Steelers will be no gimme, but winning that game doesn't sound as daunting as it once did for the Ravens, who are 6-4 in AFC play.

2. Miami (7-6): 25 percent shot of qualifying -- You can't overestimate how critical the Dolphins' win over the Jaguars was to their playoff chances, even if it only boosted their conference record to a so-so 5-4. Miami now holds any potential tiebreaker advantage over Jacksonville, and with two home games remaining in the final three weeks, the Dolphins have more of a shot to reach the playoffs than anyone ever imagined after their 0-3 start or their 3-5 mark at midseason.

The key game for Miami will be next week at Tennessee. The Titans are not your average 6-7 team, and they'll be tough. The Dolphins finish at home against Houston (6-7) and Pittsburgh (6-7), which means that Pittsburgh plays both Baltimore and Miami in the final two weeks, giving the Steelers' great spoiler potential. Pittsburgh won't be headed to the playoffs, but it may help determine the last team that is in the AFC.

3. New York Jets (7-6): 15 percent shot of qualifying -- Rex Ryan's team has some life after winning its third straight game, but I don't like their chances for a number of reasons. They've lost twice to the Dolphins, so they lose any wild-card tiebreaker to Miami. Their 5-5 record in the AFC isn't the best, and their schedule is rough, too. The Jets play at home against Atlanta (6-7), at Indianapolis (13-0), and home against Cincinnati (9-4). Could the Colts and Bengals both help them out by resting a slew of regulars? Sure. But they're still the Colts and Bengals, and they've got a combined 22 wins between them for a reason. New York's work is still mostly uphill.

4. Jacksonville (7-6): 10 percent shot of qualifying -- First, the good news. Even with the home-field loss to the Dolphins, the Jaguars are still 6-3 in the AFC, and that's a better conference record than any of the other three 7-6 wild-card contenders. But the loss to Miami was a killer, because it means the Jaguars lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with their in-state neighbors, and given Jacksonville's remaining schedule, beating the Fish was a must. The Jaguars get a visit from the Colts (13-0) this Thursday night, and then travel to frosty Foxboro in Week 16, where they've lost twice this decade to New England in the playoffs. Even a Week 17 trip to Cleveland doesn't look as soft as it did before the Browns' upset of Pittsburgh.

• Don't do it, Colts. Don't back off now that you've set the NFL record for consecutive regular season wins with 22, locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, set the league mark for wins in a decade (114), and tied the franchise's best start ever at 13-0 (also in 2005).

Four weeks is an eternity to keep your edge in the NFL, and trying to rest players and maintain momentum through three more meaningless games and then a bye week is a losing proposition. Indy only has to look at its one-and-done playoff flameouts of 2005, 2007 and 2008 to know that easing off the gas isn't the right call. The one recent year Indy didn't rest any players late in the season was 2006, and we know how things turned out for the Colts in that case.

• This undefeated season stuff is getting serious in Indianapolis and New Orleans, but having two teams instead of one attempting to do it, a la New England in 2007, has to help diffuse the pressure on both the Colts and Saints. There's no singular national spotlight falling on one team this time, like the Patriots dealt with two years ago.

Also, the feat of going 16-0 isn't as novel these days because of the Patriots having done it just 24 months ago. I'd say those reasons alone make it more probable that at least one of this year's 13-0 clubs go on to close the deal.

• What a big day for the diva receiver set in the NFL. Chad Ochocinco scored for Cincinnati. Terrell Owens scored for Buffalo. Steve Smith scored for Carolina. But nobody remotely turned in a monstrous performance to match Denver's Brandon Marshall, whose 21 catches broke Owens' league record of 20 receptions in the 49ers' 2000 season home finale against Chicago. No wonder they've long called Marshall "Baby T.O.''

Marshall had 10 catches for 109 yards in the first half alone at Indy, and his 21 receptions wound up producing 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But I would think the excitement of breaking the record for most catches in a game is lessened considerably by the fact Denver scored just 16 points on the day, and lost by a dozen points at 28-16.

• Anybody else get the feeling we're starting to see signs the last two weeks of the old, indifferent Randy Moss when it comes to his effort level? All I know is what my eyes tell me, but I've seen Moss pose less than a disruptive presence on two of Tom Brady's recent interceptions -- the one rookie Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis snagged in the Miami end zone last week, and the one Carolina's Chris Gamble pilfered Sunday in the first quarter at the Patriots 48.

Moss just didn't fight for either ball, pretty much allowing the defender to make the play without him using his 6-foot-4 frame to increase the degree of difficulty of the catch. Moss was booed by the faithful at Gillette Stadium, and it didn't help his cause one bit that he fumbled away a first-half 16-yard catch.

Are those plays windows into Moss's soul and his current state of commitment level? Has he partially checked out in any way, convinced perhaps that New England's Super Bowl hopes are fading away? We can't know the answer to those questions, but it is worth noting that Moss was one of the four Patriots sent home Wednesday morning after arriving minutes late for a team meeting.

• The Patriots did what they had to do to scratch out an ugly 20-10 win over a Carolina team playing its backup quarterback, but these really don't look anything like the Patriots that have largely dominated this NFL decade.

I will say this: Tom Brady made a very good decision in the third quarter when he decided to throw the ball only to Wes Welker. Brady completed 19 of 34 passes in the game for 192 yards and a touchdown. But all but 10 of his completions went to the dependable Welker, who produced 105 yards and now is the fourth player in NFL history with three consecutive 100-catch seasons.

Given the funk that Moss appears to be in, I would expect Brady to continue to target Welker on at least half of his passes.

• Here's one sure-fire way you know December has arrived in the NFL: Backup quarterbacks were playing everywhere in Week 14. The Jets went with Kellen Clemens and got away with it in Tampa. But Atlanta (Chris Redman), Detroit (Daunte Culpepper) and Carolina (Matt Moore) weren't as fortunate.

Keith Null, the Rams' third-stringer this year, started for St. Louis at Tennessee. Kerry Collins had to enter the game after Vince Young pulled his hammy on a 44-yard gallop for the Titans. And Seneca Wallace briefly had to step in again for Matt Hasselbeck (shoulder) in Seattle's loss at Houston.

• Did I hear that right, the Broncos won the coin toss to start their game at Indy and deferred to the Colts? And Peyton Manning? Why exactly would you give Manning the chance to get the ball in his hands any more than you absolutely have to? What were you thinking, Josh McDaniels? That's a dubious, rookie-like call for the Broncos new head coach. I do believe McDaniels was guilty of overconfidence in his defense.

• Then again, Manning rather quietly threw a season-worst three interceptions against Denver, two of them to Broncos veteran safety Brian Dawkins. Manning has now thrown 10 of his 14 interceptions this season in the past six games. He had just four picks in his first seven games.

I wouldn't be surprised if some of Manning's MVP votes were starting to slip away here and there. He has 29 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, compared to 32 and 10 for New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. And yes, those numbers do matter quite a bit when you're trying to break a tie between the league's top two MVP candidates.

• The Broncos' loss to the Colts featured some frustrating missed opportunities, but it changes nothing about their path to the playoffs. They still have to win at home against Oakland next week and Kansas City in Week 17 to get to 10 wins. At Philadelphia in Week 16 still looks like a tough hill to climb.

It's San Diego that gained the most from Denver and Cincinnati's losses in Week 14. By beating Dallas, they improved to 10-3 with the inside track on the AFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.

• If there's an elite team that has something to prove heading into Week 14, it's the Bengals, who really didn't compete with the Vikings in that 30-10 Minnesota win. That makes Cincinnati's trip to San Diego next week pretty important from a confidence and momentum-building standpoint in Bengal-dom.

• It was absolutely the "wow'' factor play of the day when Baltimore receiver Derrick Mason somehow withstood those two crushing hits by Lions defenders and then raced untouched thereafter to a 62-yard touchdown catch and run. But for me it merely served to underscore how truly awful the state of tackling is in the NFL.

Nobody really tackles any more in the NFL. Nobody wraps up. They either just lunge and miss, attempt the proverbial arm tackle, or go high and try to negotiate the ballcarrier to the ground. You see the same thing I see.

• What a stunner, Adalius Thomas being ruled inactive Sunday after daring to publicly question the wisdom of Bill Belichick's methods of coaching discipline. Bye-bye, Adalius. If you thought being sent home on Wednesday was embarrassing, then you probably won't like sitting the pine the rest of the year and being sent packing this offseason.

Then again, the problem with Thomas for the past three seasons in New England has been that even when he's active, he's not very active.

• Speaking of veteran free-agent acquisitions who have done little to earn their money in New England, Shawn Springs actually started at cornerback for the Patriots against Carolina, his first action in a month.

Alas, his luck didn't hold. He briefly left the game with an injury, then returned in time to surrender a 41-yard Matt Moore touchdown pass to Steve Smith.

• Another week, another fourth-down call that went awry for the Patriots. We get it, Bill. You like to go for it on fourth down. But stop trying to prove it every chance you get.

• Here's a headline you might have missed: The Bengals finally lost a game in/to the North on Sunday, falling 30-10 at Minnesota. Entering Week 14, the 9-3 Bengals has been 9-0 against teams from the two North Divisions -- 6-0 against the AFC North, and 3-0 against the NFC North (beating the Lions, Packers and Bears). Cincy's only previous losses this season had come against Denver, Houston and Oakland.

• I have to be honest, Mike Smith's mad face scares me even when I'm nowhere near him and only watching on television. I mean it.

• What has gotten into Laurence Maroney? He looks like a real NFL running back these days. Running north and south, lowering his shoulder for extra yardage, catching the ball out of the backfield. Where's that been the last three years or so?

• What is it with the Seahawks and injuries? It's almost freakish. Sunday's toll of the wounded at Houston included quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (shoulder), linebacker Aaron Curry (hip), and receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh (neck) and Nate Burleson (ankle). Curry had to be taken off on a cart, but early reports are that he suffered only a hip pointer. Hasselbeck returned to the game after being briefly subbed for by Seneca Wallace.

• My rational mind knows that was progress was made in Detroit this season, but at the moment, I really couldn't identify where, other than the won-loss record having two more wins. That's was a wholly uncompetitive effort at Baltimore for the Jim Schwartz-men. The Lions allowed the Ravens to rush for 308 yards, and Baltimore finished with 548 yards of offense in the 48-3 win. Detroit played as if it was allergic to the rain.

• Stupidest quote of the week (year, decade)? NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin claiming on Sunday that he "would turn in all three Super Bowl rings and my Hall of Fame bust for one undefeated season.''

Give me a break. No he wouldn't. In trying to offer something bold, fresh and evocative about the Colts and Saints' march to an undefeated season, Irvin was committing the No. 1 sin of NFL talking heads everywhere: Saying something just to say something. I've been guilty of it myself.

Last I checked, there's no way Irvin can give back his three Super Bowl rings or his Hall of Fame bust, so it's a meaningless, empty claim.

• Good call, Ochocinco. Leave Ragnar alone. The Vikings mascot has a Harley and at least 50 pounds on you.

• Week 14 was great for Super Bowl rematches, if you're into that sort of thing. We had Panthers-Patriots in New England, Rams-Titans in Nashville, and Redskins-Raiders in Oakland.

Carolina didn't get any revenge for the Super Bowl loss it suffered against New England almost six years ago. But the Titans and Redskins exacted a little payback for their Super defeats of 10 and 26 years ago, respectively.

• Dubious fashion choice on the black sweater vest, Rex Ryan. For starters, it was like 80 degrees in Tampa. And secondly, well, although black can be very slimming, let's just say it didn't quite compliment your full figure.

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