Monday December 21st, 2009

Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 15 that was chock-full of drama, record-setting performances and thrilling comebacks and conclusions. With Christmas just around the corner, who could ask for anything more?....

• Uh, oh. They're doing it again. The Denver Broncos are dying in December and giving the rest of the AFC's wild-card contenders some much-needed new life in the process.

Never mind what the Dallas Cowboys have done in the season's final month in recent years. The Broncos can match them loss for excruciating loss in December. And while the Cowboys gave their playoffs hopes a huge boost with a showdown win against the Saints Saturday night in the Superdome, Denver is in free fall again.

There's a new head coach in Denver this season and a new starting quarterback. But these might wind up being the same old Broncos after all. That's the only conclusion you can draw after seeing the staggering team lose 20-19 to JaMarcus Russell -- JaMarcus Russell of all people -- and the Oakland Raiders at a stunned Invesco Field.

Denver started the season 6-0, but it has now tumbled all the way to the AFC's No. 6 seed in the playoff chase, with plenty of banana peels left to slip on. The Broncos have lost six of eight and, at 8-6, they just single-handedly kept the 7-7 Dolphins, Jaguars, Jets, Titans, Steelers and Texans very much in the wild-card picture as Christmas week begins. Denver plays a tough game at Philadelphia next week, and then wraps up the regular season at home against Kansas City.

Of course, we've seen this movie before and know how it ends. Like last year, when Denver sat 8-5 with a three-game lead in the AFC with three weeks remaining, but lost all three to miss the playoffs. Or in 2006, when the Broncos would have clinched a postseason spot by merely beating the 11-point underdog 49ers at home in Week 17. Denver lost and finished 9-7 and out of the money.

Sunday's defeat at the hands of Oakland actually marked the second consecutive year the Raiders have won in Denver. Last year it was 31-10 in Week 12, which started a season-ending 2-4 slide. But this one hurt even more because the injury-plagued Raiders had to use three quarterbacks -- and their fourth in two weeks -- and wound up putting the game in the hands of Russell, the disappointing former No. 1 overall pick who had been buried on the Oakland roster.

Given the Broncos' luck in December, Russell, of course, delivered. He connected with receiver Chaz Schilens from 10 yards with 35 seconds to go, and Oakland held on for a vindicating victory over their division rivals.

For the rest of the AFC wild-card contenders, Denver's collapse against the Raiders was the gift that might just keep giving. All the way to the playoffs.

• I thought I was watching Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes in the last seconds of February's Super Bowl all over again early Sunday evening, but it wasn't an instant replay. Just eerily close. It was Roethlisberger to rookie receiver Mike Wallace in the front left corner of the end zone this time, from 19 yards as time expired. But the result was the same: A breathtaking Pittsburgh comeback victory, 37-36 over Green Bay (9-5).

In truth, the Packers' bitter loss doesn't really hurt their playoff seeding. They were in the NFC's No. 5 slot before the game, and they remain there despite the defeat. But giving up a Pittsburgh team-record 503 yards passing and that game-winning touchdown drive won't build confidence in Green Bay's defense, which has been thriving in the season's second half and had risen to No. 2 in fewest yards allowed. The loss removes any chance the Packers had of clinching a playoff berth this week, which would have occurred with a win at Pittsburgh and a Giants loss at Washington Monday night.

• Winning ugly has become something of a Patriots specialty of late, but it sure beats the alternative of, say, dominating a good team like the Colts for most of the game and then finding a way to give away the W at the end.

The Patriots won their first true road game of the season, 17-10, at Buffalo, and we can put all those Randy Moss effort stories to rest this week because New England's top receiver produced early and fairly often against the Bills. Moss caught five passes for 70 yards and a touchdown, and drew a key 40-yard-plus pass interference penalty from Buffalo safety Donte Whitner in the first half.

Despite a defensive line that was missing the injured Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork, the Patriots got great pass rush against the Bills, with six sacks, half of which were produced by linebacker Tully Banta-Cain.

• Pretty gutty showing for the Falcons in their 10-7 win at the Jets, given that Atlanta's playoff hopes evaporated when Dallas completed its upset of the Saints late Saturday night. The Falcons (7-7) won't be in the postseason, but they absolutely still have something to play for: a chance to end the franchise's mind-boggling streak of never having back-to-back winning seasons in its 43 years of existence. Atlanta has two winnable games remaining -- home against Buffalo and at Tampa Bay -- and it should go hell-bent for 9-7 and putting that dubious distinction to rest.

Injuries really killed Mike Smith's club in the season's second half, but in upsetting the Jets (7-7), Atlanta might have buried New York's playoff chances as well. With games left at Indy and home against Cincinnati, the Jets look dead in the water. The Falcons became the first of last season's three dramatic turnaround teams to be eliminated from this year's playoff chase. Baltimore (8-6) and Miami (7-7) are still alive in the AFC wild-card chase, but the Dolphins look likely to join the Falcons in the non-playoff pool after losing 27-24 in overtime at Tennessee.

• What a horrible time for the Jets defense to finally surrender its first touchdown in 34 possessions -- which had been the league's longest active streak in that department. Matt Ryan's game-winning, 6-yard scoring pass to Tony Gonzalez on fourth down with 1:38 left broke New York's heart.

But it was the Jets field goal unit that really cost them this one. (Well, three Mark Sanchez interceptions didn't help). Holder Kellen Clemens fumbled a snap on a field goal try of less than 20 yards and kicker Jay Feeley missed wide right from 38, and had a 37 yarder blocked in the fourth quarter.

• Turning the old line from "The Godfather'' on its head, sounds to me like the Seahawks made Mike Holmgren an offer they were pretty sure he'd refuse. According to the sources I talked to, Seattle really had no interest in vesting anyone with full-fledged football czar powers. But the Seahawks knew that their former head coach wanted something similar to the total control he could get in Cleveland by just saying yes to the desperate Browns.

In Seattle, Holmgren might have run the team's football operations, but he still would have reported to Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke, owner Paul Allen's man at the top of the team's flow chart, and it likely would have been made clear to him that he had to keep head coach Jim Mora in place. Thus, the Seahawks job would have been something less than total control for Holmgren, and when you factor in that Cleveland is willing to pay at a salary level that Seattle had no interest in matching (a reported $50 million over 10 years has been floated), is it any wonder the two sides agreed to not reunite?

The key phrase in the statement released by Leiweke was this: "Mike has declined our offer to rejoin the team given the structure we proposed.'' Whatever that structure entailed, it didn't include as much decision-making power (or salary) as Holmgren can get in Cleveland, a job he'll likely now accept by Monday. And no, Eric Mangini shouldn't consider that development good news for his job security. Mangini is almost certainly a one-and-done head coach in Cleveland with Holmgren coming aboard.

• Speaking of the Browns, if I'm them, I'm trying to strike a new deal with jack-of-all trades Josh Cribbs by Christmas, before his price tag goes up even further. Cribbs almost single-handedly delivered that upset of the Steelers 10 days ago and, in the first half Sunday in Kansas City, he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, from 100 and 103 yards.

They were the seventh and eighth kickoff return touchdowns of Cribbs' five-year NFL career, breaking the league record he had shared with Dante Hall, Gale Sayers, Mel Gray, Travis Williams and Ollie Matson. Cribbs has three kickoff return touchdowns this season, and his two against the Chiefs tied the NFL's single-game record.

Time to pay, J.C., Cleveland. He's the closest thing to a one-man team as exists in the NFL, Peyton Manning included.

• I tuned into some of the Browns-Chiefs, which happened to be the first game in 19 years to be locally blacked out in Kansas City. Nothing but a top-three draft slot was on the line for the loser in this one, but what a show Cleveland and Kansas City put on in the Browns' 41-34 slugfest victory, their second win in a row.

And what are the odds that the Browns, with one of the three worst offenses in the NFL, would be involved in two of the most entertaining shootouts of the season? Cleveland's victory at Kansas City was reminiscent of that wild 38-37 Lions win over the Browns at Ford Field in Week 11.

Not only did you get Cribbs' record-breaking performance if you invested time into the Browns-Chiefs game, you got Jerome Harrison's monstrous 286-yard, three-touchdown, rushing performance for the Browns, and Jamaal Charles' 154-yard rushing game for Kansas City. Harrison had a 71-yard scoring run and posted the third-biggest rushing game in NFL history, trailing only Adrian Peterson's 296-yard game in 2007 and Jamal Lewis' 295-yard outing in 2003.

The little-known Harrison entered the game with just 301 yards rushing all season, and with 34 carries the fourth-year vet nearly doubled that in one afternoon. His 286 yards shattered Jim Brown's 48-year-old team rushing record of 237 yards (done twice), and was the NFL's best rushing performance this season by a whopping 58 yards (besting Chris Johnson's 228-yard game against Jacksonville in Week 8). Harrison's previous career-high was 121 yards rushing, from earlier this season against Cincinnati. Cleveland finished with 341 yards rushing against Kansas City, and that's despite Harrison being the Browns' third-team running back for most of the season.

• It's a shame Charles' big game for the Chiefs got overshadowed by Harrison's and Cribbs' record-breaking performances, because the second-year standout has emerged as a go-to play-maker. His 47-yard scoring run in the second quarter gave him six consecutive games with a touchdown, and he now has run for 607 yards in that span.

What a find Charles has been for the Chiefs. Who needs Larry Johnson?

• Stat of the day: The quirky Browns have averaged 39 points per game when playing Detroit and Kansas City this season. In their other 11 games, Cleveland is averaging 11 points per outing.

• It's no small accomplishment for Tennessee to get back to the .500 mark this season after that humbling 0-6 start, and the Titans deserve credit for fighting their way to 7-7. They still need two more wins and a bunch of help to make the playoffs, but all that talk of Jeff Fisher's time being up in Nashville now sounds sillier than ever. Chargers-Titans on Christmas night should be fun.

• The Cardinals found a way to win in Detroit, but Arizona still seems to be a team that has the troubling habit of playing down to the level of its opponent. In the two weeks since I saw the Cardinals dismantle Minnesota in Glendale, they've lost big at San Francisco and squeaked past a Lions team that was down 17-0 but fought back into a 24-24 fourth-quarter tie.

You can't give a bad team that much life and get away with it on a regular basis.

• The Rams flirted with victory at home against Houston, but in the end they protected their shot at next year's No. 1 overall draft pick. With Tampa Bay getting its second win of the season, in a mild upset at Seattle, St. Louis (1-13) is now in the driver's seat for the top pick. And it's a good year to have that distinction.

• Things I wish I hadn't seen Sunday:

-- Lions reserve quarterback Drew Stanton scoring his first career touchdown on a fourth-quarter, game-tying 1-yard run and trying to do a Lambeau Leap in Ford Field. The walls are a bit higher than in Lambeau, and Stanton didn't really make the leap into the stands, leaving him kind of awkwardly pinned up against the wall as a few fans backslapped him.

-- Jets' Mark Sanchez sliding head-first again. I'm guessing Joe Girardi has given his last sliding lesson to an NFL quarterback.

-- Texans safety Bernard Pollard and Rams running back Steven Jackson locked in that nasty one-on-one scrum after a second-half play in Houston's 13-10 win in St. Louis. Jackson somehow wound up helmetless and with a bit of a bloody lip.

-- Packers kicker Mason Crosby lining up for another field goal. Green Bay has a kicking issue to deal with. Crosby has missed five of his past 11 field goal tries, including a 34-yard, second-quarter attempt at Pittsburgh.

-- Daunte Culpepper getting another start for the Lions at quarterback. Why? What has he done this year to deserve to play ahead of Stanton? I couldn't help but notice that with Stanton in the game in the second half, the Lions scored 24 points and made a game of it at home against defending NFC champion Arizona. The Lions lost 31-24, but Stanton at least provided an offensive spark.

• In fairness, the Lions second-half comeback was really kick-started by rookie safety Louis Delmas, whose 101-yard interception return for a touchdown scored Detroit's first points. Delmas is now the first rookie in NFL history to score on a safety, a fumble return for a touchdown and an interception return for a touchdown.

I was in Detroit on draft weekend, and the Lions front office was as excited about landing Delmas with the first pick of the second round as anything that happened that Saturday. I understand why a bit more every week.

Ricky Williams is a 1,000-yard rusher again, six years after it last happened. That's the longest gap between 1,000-yard rushing seasons in NFL history, and maybe nothing sums up the interesting arc of Williams' career better than that. There are so many different chapters to the Ricky story. Ricky as the Saints franchise back. Ricky as the workhorse for the Dolphins. Ricky the enigma. Ricky the exiled. Ricky in Canada. And Ricky reborn as a savvy role player in Miami.

• Nice coaching job, Wade Phillips. You've been a piñata here of late, and I've certainly taken my share of swings, but you had your Cowboys ready for their game of the season Saturday night in New Orleans. But don't start resting on your laurels, because your work is far from done. It may take a 10th victory to make the playoffs, and even if it doesn't, a win in the postseason is probably a must to keep your job another year.

• Their perfect season is gone, but that doesn't mean the Saints (13-1) can afford to ease their foot off the gas at this point, even after Minnesota (11-3) fell to Carolina Sunday night in Charlotte.

But with a home game against Tampa Bay and a road date at Carolina remaining, the Saints still should be able to make the rest of the NFC playoff field go through the Superdome.

• We'll be seeing you, Nick Folk. When the Dallas kicker clanked that 24-yard field goal attempt off the right upright Saturday night at the Superdome, giving the Saints life in the final two minutes, he might as well have headed to the sideline and speed-dialed Shaun Suisham to find out what to expect during his pending unemployment.

• Granted, Drew Brees didn't have his best game of the season against Dallas. He threw a pick, lost a couple fumbles and absorbed four sacks by the Cowboys. But no, I don't think the MVP race just got decided in favor of Peyton Manning. Brees obviously didn't help his candidacy, but this thing ain't over. Not by a long shot. It'll go a full 17 weeks.

• Should be a nice Christmas week for Jim Caldwell. How'd you like to be a rookie NFL head coach and realize that you can't possibly experience your first regular-season loss until after the holiday? Probably makes the egg nog taste a little sweeter.

• Even at this late date, does anybody really know what the Browns have in Brady Quinn? The 2007 first-round pick entered Sunday with four consecutive games without an interception, but he had his second straight low-impact game in a Browns win, throwing for just 66 yards and a pair of interceptions in that wacky affair in Kansas City. Quinn ran for almost as many yards (39) as that, and on just four scrambles.

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