Sunday December 27th, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a blowout-strewn Week 16, the final, somewhat anticlimactic, NFL Sunday of 2009. Meanwhile, can I get a little help deciphering those playoff scenarios?...

• New Orleans' shocking overtime loss at home to Tampa Bay only confirms the sneaking suspicion I've had for about four weeks now. Namely that Sean Payton's once-invincible Saints played and won their Super Bowl when they turned in that near-perfect performance in trouncing the Patriots on the Monday night of Week 12.

Since then? Struggles to win at Washington and Atlanta, and a pair of home losses to Dallas and, gulp, the 3-12 Bucs. Blowing a 17-0 lead at home against Tampa Bay is a loss that should set off every possible alarm bell in New Orleans. The Saints could have squeaked by once again if they had made a late field goal in regulation -- how's that Garrett Hartley-for-John Carney call looking now, Coach Payton? -- but even allowing the Bucs to hang around this game is an indication that New Orleans is rapidly losing air from its balloon.

There's still time for New Orleans to recover some of its mojo, and either a win at Carolina next week or one more Vikings' loss will deliver the NFC homefield advantage the Saints looked destined to earn all season. But New Orleans is showing all the signs of a team that has already played its best football of the season, and it makes putting on a good performance next week against the resurgent Panthers a must for the Saints' sense of confidence as they head into the playoffs.

But it's not just the Saints. Does anybody really want to seize the momentum in the NFC these days? With New Orleans (13-2) looking as if it has peaked, the door remains wide open for someone to take control, much like Arizona did last January.

But the list of contenders all look flawed. Minnesota (11-3) is certainly having its own problems of late, the Cardinals (10-5) have ridden the rollercoaster for the past month, and playoff-bound teams like Dallas (10-5) and Green Bay (10-5) aren't exactly inspiring supreme confidence.

That leaves the Eagles, which beat Denver on Sunday for their sixth win in a row, improving to 11-4. But with the Cowboys' win at Washington Sunday night, Philly will have to win at Dallas next week to clinch the NFC East and launch a serious playoff run from one of the conference's top three seeds. I suppose the Eagles are the hottest team we've got in the NFC, and almost by default they're the conference's chic playoff pick.

• As I understand it, while the big wins posted by Pittsburgh (8-7) and Houston (8-7) on Sunday aid them in their upstart bids to come back from the brink of extinction and make the AFC postseason, neither team controls their playoff fate as we head into Week 17.

The Steelers need to win at Miami, and get some help. The Texans, who just won at Miami on Sunday, need to go home and beat a New England team that will be playing with nothing on the line. Could happen.

• One more nugget worth mentioning, if the Jets, Ravens and Broncos all finish 9-7 after next week's games, New York would be the AFC's No. 5 seed based on a better record against common opponents, and Baltimore would be the No. 6 based on having beaten Denver head-to-head earlier this season in Baltimore. The Broncos? They'd be the third team in league history to start 6-0 and miss the playoffs, joining the 1978 Redskins and the 2003 Vikings.

• Do the Giants know how to throw a party, or what? Their final game at Giants Stadium, after 34 mostly good seasons, was more like a funeral. A loud, boo-filled funeral. New York invited franchise great Lawrence Taylor to the game for a pre-game ceremony, but I'll bet he left early like so many thousands of others.

Carolina's 41-9 butt-kicking of the G-Men was quite complete. And I think it's fair to say New York's effort was every bit as embarrassing as Washington's was in that 45-12 mail-in job against the Giants last Monday night.

New York (8-7) gets our fraud-of-the-week honor for all but killing its own playoff chances, allowing Carolina to roll up 416 yards of offense, led by Jonathan Stewart's career-best 206 rushing yards. The Panthers scored on six of their first seven possessions, led 24-0 at the half, and limited the vaunted Giants running game (well, it used to be vaunted) to just 60 yards. Making matters worse, Dallas defeated Washington in the Sunday night game, meaning New York will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2004, Eli Manning's first year in the league. That's not an earth-shattering development, but it was the NFC's longest active playoff streak, and the Giants were 5-0 at one point this season, many, many, weeks ago.

• Think about that: Denver and the Giants were once 6-0 and 5-0, respectively, and they both might be done playing after next week. That's why the NFL season is indeed a marathon, not a sprint.

• So let me get this straight: Tampa Bay fired its Super Bowl-winning head coach last offseason rather than risk losing its young defensive coordinator to another team that might target him as a hot potential head coaching candidate, only to find out that he maybe wasn't ready for the job he was given, prompting the Bucs to at least look into the possibility of hiring a Super Bowl-winning head coach?

If you're confused in any way, I was referencing Jon Gruden, Raheem Morris and Bill Cowher in the previous paragraph. And shouldn't the Bucs think twice before they discard Morris, given his last-place club is on a two-game winning streak and making a bit of a late-season push for respectability?

• Very quietly, there's been quite a role reversal by the Packers offense this season. Green Bay had no running game to speak of for most of the first half of the year, and it was Aaron Rodgers taking a brutal beating while he looked for receivers behind that sieve-like Packers offensive line.

But Green Bay is now a potent running team, with Ryan Grant re-emerging and Brandon Jackson starting to contribute. Jackson and Grant combined for five touchdowns on Sunday in a 48-10 win at Lambeau over Seattle, with four of those scores on the ground. Green Bay hadn't had a four-rushing touchdown game since the very first NFL Sunday of the decade, on Jan. 2, 2000.

• I'll say it once more: I really like what I see from Matt Moore, the Carolina backup quarterback who has dismantled the Vikings and the Giants the past two weeks. I know Carolina is making noise about its intention to bring back Mr. Interception, Jake Delhomme, next season, mostly because of the financial implications, but if I'm the Panthers, I'd give Moore every opportunity to win the starting job in the preseason.

Moore threw for three more touchdowns against the Giants, and now has six touchdowns and 470 yards passing in leading Carolina to victories by a combined score of 67-16 the past two weeks.

• Another week, another 100-yard rushing game (or thereabouts) for Browns running back Jerome Harrison. Like who needs Jamal Lewis in Cleveland?

• Somehow I knew Charlie Frye's return to Cleveland wouldn't generate quite the same fanfare as Brett Favre's first trip back to Lambeau Field earlier this season. Though there were some similarities. Both quarterbacks have last names that start with an F and end with an E.

But that's about it.

• If this keeps up, I'd say the Randy Moss lack-of-effort storyline is going to make us all feel a bit silly. Moss has scored four touchdowns since we all spent a week analyzing his motivation level, and three of those came on Sunday in New England's AFC-East clinching 35-7 destruction of Jacksonville.

• Not much to worry about with Tom Brady's game either. Brady threw for more touchdowns (four) than incompletions (three) against Jacksonville, with his 23-of-26, 267-yard showing looking scary good. These aren't the Patriots of old, but they are AFC East champions again after a one-year absence, and I really don't believe anyone in the AFC playoffs will relish drawing them next month.

• Speaking of the Jags, they turned out to be who we thought they were. Jacksonville was never really playoff material this season, and you couldn't really see it otherwise, even when the Jaguars started 6-4 and 7-5. But three consecutive losses, and four in five weeks, removed any chance that Jacksonville could wind up a Cinderella entry in the playoffs.

Steve Smith is one tough guy. The Panthers' receiver did indeed break his arm on that 26-yard touchdown pass he caught against the Giants in the third quarter, which only cements his reputation as one of the grittier players in the NFL at his position.

• OK, enough with the Mike Wallace "60 Minutes'' jokes this season. We get it. The Steelers rookie receiver and the veteran CBS newsman have the same name. Every possible line based on that coincidence has already been launched at this late date.

• This is merely tea-leaves reading on my part, but a third consecutive win by the suddenly competent Browns just might have tipped the scales in favor of earning Eric Mangini a second season in Cleveland. I don't see new Browns president Mike Holmgren lowering the boom on Mangini after an impressive December, especially after mentioning often in recent weeks how unfair it is to make anybody a one-and-done head coach.

And don't give me any of that it-was-only-Oakland business when it comes to Cleveland's 23-9 win. Ask the Eagles, Bengals, Steelers or Broncos how much they wish they could have beaten Oakland.

• Saints safety Darren Sharper might have won a few more votes for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award, picking off his ninth pass of the season and returning it 21 yards. That gives Sharper 376 interception return yards this season, breaking Ed Reed's 2004 NFL record (358).

• Not-so-much revenge exacted by Larry Johnson against Kansas City. L.J. dented the Chiefs for all of 11 yards on four carries, a paltry 2.8 average. Meanwhile, his replacement in Kansas City continues in his bid to make everyone forget Johnson ever wore Chiefs red. Jamaal Charles rumbled for 102 yards rushing on 24 carries in a 17-10 loss at Cincinnati, his third consecutive 100-yard game.

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