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Surprising Jags, tumbling Titans, improving Vikings, more Snaps

BALTIMORE -- Musings, observations and the occasional Week 13 insight as we await the Steelers-Ravens bi-annual bare-knuckle slugfest in the AFC North at M&T Bank Stadium Sunday night....

• I'm not sure if anything should really shock us any more in an NFL season that has defied expectations in so many ways, but seeing the Jacksonville Jaguars make the trek from worst-to-first and go to the playoffs as champions of the AFC South is starting to become more than a distinct possibility.

And I still can't believe I just wrote those words. But the facts are the facts, and since Halloween day dawned, Jack Del Rio's Jags are 4-1, while the rest of the AFC South seems to be having a hellbent race to see whose season can go south the fastest.

With the Colts (6-6) self-destructing at home against the resurgent Cowboys in overtime on Sunday, Jacksonville remarkably enough exits Week 13 with what amounts to a 1½-game lead in the division, thanks to its tough-minded 17-6 win at slumping Tennessee (5-7). The Jaguars are 7-5 and, having beaten the Colts head-to-head, 31-28, in Week 4, hold the tiebreaker advantage over their nearest division rivals. With Houston and Tennessee both losing this week to sink to 5-7, the AFC South should come down to what happens when the Jaguars play at Indianapolis in two weeks.

It's a pretty enviable spot for a Jacksonville team that finished last in the AFC South at 7-9 in 2009, and was largely defined earlier this year by having been blown out four times by margins of 22 points or more in a span of six weeks. Those Jaguars had starting quarterback issues, a head coach who looked to be firmly on the hot seat, and they played their games amidst the backdrop of the never-ending questions about Jacksonville's long-term viability as an NFL city.

But that was then, and this is now. Jaguars quarterback David Garrard can suddenly do little wrong. Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew is running like a miniature Jim Brown. And, who knows, maybe this unsung and unlikely playoff-contending Jaguars team will go down in history as the team that saved pro football for the city of Jacksonville?

After all, this is a Jags club that already has pulled off a couple magic acts in beating the Colts on a 59-yard Josh Scobee field goal in October, and nipping the Texans on that most unlikely of Hail Mary touchdown passes in November. What's another miracle or two when you're on a roll?

In handing the totally punchless Titans their fifth consecutive defeat, Jacksonville got a career-best 186-yard rushing day from Jones-Drew (on 31 carries), and ran for 258 yards overall on a cold, windy day in Nashville that was made for a power-running game. The Jaguars gashed the Titans' run defense 53 times for a 4.9 average gain, riding that domination to a 17-0 first-half lead, with more than 21 minutes of possession time in the opening two quarters. It was Jones-Drew's fifth consecutive 100-yard game (he had just one in the Jags' first seven games) and gave him 1,177 yards for the season, his second consecutive 1,000-yard season.

But Jones-Drew we knew was a force. It's Garrard's play that has really opened eyes. He was only 14-of-19 for 126 yards in the tough conditions, but he didn't turn the ball over for the third time in the past five games and, for the second week in a row, chipped in with another rushing touchdown, giving him three in five games. Mix in a Jaguars defense that held Tennessee to just 220 yards of offense and two field goals (the Titans haven't scored a touchdown in their past 13 quarters), and Jacksonville was nothing like the team that lost 30-3 to Jeff Fisher's team seven weeks ago.

In the preseason, Indianapolis, Houston and Tennessee all looked like potential playoff teams, and the trio showed up plenty in terms of postseason predictions. But I don't recall anyone touting Jacksonville. So of course the Jaguars are best positioned in the division to make the AFC playoffs and try to do some damage once they get there.

In Jacksonville this season, they're asking "Why not us?'' So far, no one in the AFC South has come up with a good answer.

• So much for the theory that Kerry Collins' return to the lineup would cure what ails the Titans' offense. Was Tennessee really ever 5-2 this season, with an offense that was averaging the second-most points in the league per game? Collins looked dreadful for most of the day, completing just 14-of-32 passes for 169 yards and two interceptions.

And what exactly has happened to Tennessee's once-vaunted running game? Chris Johnson had nine yards rushing on his first six carries on Sunday, and wound up with just 53 yards on 13 attempts. Johnson has 58 yards on 20 attempts the past two games, and his 1,026 yards on the season is a tad off the pace he'll need to crack that 2,500-yard rushing plateau he targeted.

• Score another one for Vince Young over Jeff Fisher if the end of this season in Tennessee turns into a weekly referendum on who owner Bud Adams will side with and bring back in 2011. I'm not saying that's the right call, but Fisher's case, if it comes down to a showdown of either Young goes or he goes, is growing weaker by the week. Young isn't playing these days and thus can't do any further damage to his position. Such is not the case for Fisher with a team that's looking DOA.

• Watching Mike Shanahan coach his moribund Redskins at the Meadowlands on Sunday, I got the feeling that he now finally realizes what he has gotten himself into. There's always a point in that first season of every new Washington head coach when it dawns on him that the Redskins job is a coach-killer for very good reason. You can see it in the eyes.

Maybe it came to him while watching Donovan McNabb play an uninterested, sloppy game that featured three fumbles by him (one lost) and two interceptions, including one in the end zone. Maybe it was the six overall Redskins turnovers that blunted any chance for Washington to stay in a game they wound up losing 31-7. Maybe it was the Giants' 197 yards of power rushing that sapped his team's will, or the sight of Redskins linebacker Bryan Orakpo having a very visible sideline meltdown in the second half, in which he stormed away from a defensive huddle and proceeded to kick anything in sight. And let's not forget a deactivated Albert Haynesworth, the $100 million man who might have been the only real winner in Washington on this day (because he didn't have to play in this stinker).

Whatever provided that tipping point, Shanahan definitely knows he's in the club now. No matter what buttons he pushes, nothing much works for his reeling Redskins. And so we -- and Daniel Snyder -- learn anew that there will be no easy fixes in Washington, which is 5-7 and looking like it intends to give Dallas a run for its money for last place in the NFC East.

• At one point during a replay review in the Redskins-Giants game, referee Walt Coleman announced that "Denver'' had lost its challenge. Oops. Could you blame Shanahan for probably wishing he was back in his comfort zone with the Broncos about now?

• Where do the Redskins currently stand in relation to their three NFC East rivals? Well, three weeks ago they lost 59-28 at home to the Eagles. When you add in Sunday's 31-7 loss at the Giants, that's a 90-35 level of domination, with a game at resurgent Dallas scheduled in two weeks.

The bottom line? There's plenty of work left to be done in still-dysfunctional D.C.

• I trust by now Vikings owner Zygi Wilf knows he waited too long to end the Brad Childress era and begin his team's Leslie Frazier coaching tenure. The difference between Minnesota these past two weeks and the dysfunctional Vikings team we watched play in the season's first 11 weeks is too obvious to miss. And it was on display in Minnesota's 38-14 beatdown of a Bills team that has been no pushover of late.

Playing without Percy Harvin, Steve Hutchinson and, for most of the game, Brett Favre, the Vikings against visiting Buffalo still played with a sense of purpose and precision that was seldom seen this season under Childress. Minnesota's 38 points were a season high, and it should all make Wilf wonder what might have happened if he had pulled the plug on Childress and installed Frazier weeks earlier?

The Vikings are now 5-7 with their two-game winning streak, but had Wilf acted sooner, maybe Minnesota could have clawed its way back into the NFC North race and still made something of its Super Bowl-or-bust season.

• Before we even learn the entire extent of Favre's shoulder injury -- and when do we ever really know anything fully when it comes to a Favre injury? -- I was convinced he would be returned to the lineup in Minnesota if he's deemed healthy enough to go next week at home against the Giants. Frazier confirmed that hunch in his postgame news conference.

I thought that would be the case because of how Frazier didn't equivocate in naming Favre his starter upon getting the interim head coaching gig in Minnesota. And while backup Tarvaris Jackson played well at times, he did throw three interceptions to go along with his two touchdown passes and 187 passing yards. If you're an interim head coach trying to earn your first full-time head coaching job, whose track record are you going to trust: Favre's or Jackson's?

But I'm sure we'll have all week to chew on the topic of whether Favre will or should keep his 297-game starting streak active, so why spoil the fun before it really begins?

• Curious call of the season in that Bills-Viking game. Minnesota receiver Sidney Rice and Buffalo cornerback Leodis McKelvin wound up in dual possession of a pass from Jackson in the second quarter, landing in a heap in the Bills end zone. The ball never remotely came close to either hitting the ground or being juggled, and the original call on the field was....incomplete? Huh?

After a replay review, referee Jerome Bogar correctly ruled the play a Rice touchdown catch, because dual possession by rule does go to the receiver. But it still begs the question of how in the world was an on-field call of incomplete ever rendered? I mean, if the ball doesn't touch the ground, someone caught it. Right? I know that much about football.

• I also know that for a guy who grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., and spent his teenage years living and mostly dying with the John McKay-coached Bucs, I love seeing Tampa Bay trot out the orange throwback jerseys once a year. There's retro cool, and then there are those Tampa Bay creamsicle-colored unis. I'm always looking for Dewey Selmon out there running around when I see those.

• Week 13 in the NFL felt like that first regular-season Sunday in which the cold-weather elements made their impact on certain games. In Kansas City, the Chiefs couldn't get their fast-break offense untracked against visiting Denver and had to squeak out a 10-6 win that improves Todd Haley's first-place club to 8-4, including a sterling 6-0 mark at home.

The Chiefs went scoreless in the second half on seven possessions, and Denver quarterback Kyle Orton was just 9-of-28 for 117 yards and a key fumble in the game. The Broncos, believe it or not, should have stuck more with their dead-last-ranked running game given the conditions. Denver running back Knowshon Moreno rushed for a career-best 161 yards on just 23 carries, for a gaudy average of 7 yards per attempt.

• Haley wisely gave his Denver counterpart, Josh McDaniels, a postgame hug this time, even adding a pat on the head for his vanquished foe. But I still think Haley is too daring for his own good at times when it comes to game management.

With the Chiefs up 10-3 early in the second half, Haley opted to go for a fourth and goal from the Kansas City 2 rather than try a chip-shot field goal that would have made it a 10-point game. Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel wound up taking a 13-yard sack and the Chiefs got nothing, which meant they had to sweat out their slim lead the rest of the game.

• I know the Saints had no intention of running a play facing that 4th-and-2 from the Cincy 7, down by three points. But not every head coach would let their quarterback even go out there and try to entice the opposing defense offside with a hard-count cadence at the line of scrimmage.

But it worked like a charm, because Drew Brees got Bengals defensive lineman Pat Sims to jump, and the resulting first down at the 4 set up Brees' game-winning touchdown pass to Marques Colston on the next play of New Orleans' hard-fought 34-30 win.

Then again, not every head coach has Brees playing quarterback. But the Saints' Sean Payton does.

• Speaking of Colston's game-winning touchdown catch, someone should tell Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph that it does no good to play more than five yards off the receiver when you're on your own 4-yard line and trying to defend on the game's most pivotal play.

• Who needs Pierre Thomas when the Saints can trot out rookie running back Chris Ivory and watch him roll for 117 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries, including an up-the-gut 55-yard scoring burst that was the longest scoring run for New Orleans since 2003? It was no fluke. Ivory ran for 158 yards earlier this year at Tampa Bay and put up 99 yards a couple weeks ago in a win over visiting Seattle.

The Saints just always seem to have a running back in reserve when they need one, don't they?

• I can understand the frustration level in Detroit with the officials at this point of the season, but the reality is, Lions rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has already earned something of a reputation for violent hits -- see his body-slamming of Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme in the preseason -- and I don't think he's going to get the benefit of the doubt from game officials.

Suh's controversial and game-turning hit of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler looked worse than it really was, and he didn't come into contact with Cutler's helmet. But it looked like Suh led with a forearm, and even though Cutler was scrambling at the time, and thus wasn't a quarterback per se, Suh has to be smart enough to know that QBs are going to get special protection from officials.

Meanwhile, the almost-but-not-quite Lions almost won again. But lost. For the NFL-record 19th consecutive time against a division opponent. That's a staggering accomplishment.

• You can't get too picky about these things, because there really are no ugly wins in Week 13, but I keep waiting for the Packers to have that one game where it all comes together for them.

It didn't happen Sunday at home against the 49ers, but Green Bay was still good enough to score 34 points in the final three quarters en route to a 34-16 win. And maybe the best news? The Packers were able to run the ball a little bit, getting 73 yards on the first 18 regular-season carries of rookie James Starks' NFL career.

• I guess it's true what they say about black, that it's a very slimming color. Because seeing ex-Steelers kicker Jeff Reed in a 49ers uniform for the first time on Sunday, his new colors seemed to add about 15 pounds to his frame.

Reed looked like a modern-day Ray Wersching.

• Not that I believed in the Dolphins at any point this season, but that 13-10 loss to Cleveland at home pretty much cements Miami (6-6) as one of the frauds of the 2010 season. The Dolphins' struggles at home are a complete mystery, what with all the celebrity ownership they have to root them on. Miami is 1-5 at home this year, and 5-1 on the road.

As for quarterback Chad Henne, that was a great big step backward for him. After playing so clutch in the win at Oakland last week, Henne was intercepted three times by the Browns. Back to the drawing board on that front, Dolphins.

• That was a heck of a boot, however, by Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter, who continues his superb season. There's something always a little magical about a field goal of 60 yards or more. Not that there's been many of them.

I'm always partial to Garo Yepremian when it comes to Dolphins kickers, but Carpenter has had a year to remember.

• Browns rookie cornerback Joe Haden has really started to show each and every week. He intercepted Henne on Sunday, giving him a team rookie-record of four consecutive games with a pick. The young talent level in Cleveland is higher than it has ever been since the Browns returned to the league in 1999. I might just have to tab Cleveland as a chic surprise playoff pick next season.

• Did you see Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi get turned upside down by that hit put on him by Miami cornerback Sean Smith? It was almost the exact kind of play that Massaquoi got leveled on by Steelers linebacker James Harrison earlier this season, prompting a big fine for Harrison.

Only this time, Smith hit him legally, and so low that it flipped Massaquoi up in the air, and somersaulted him around, before he landed on his head. Is that really a safer outcome than Harrison's hit, NFL?

• In the interim head coaches are a waste of time department, I dare say no one in the league wants to play either Dallas or Minnesota right now. The Cowboys and Vikings are a combined 5-1 since asking Wade Phillips and Brad Childress to turn in their security badges and give up their parking spots. And that would be a 6-0 mark if Roy Williams had managed to hold on to the ball against the Saints late on Thanksgiving Day.

• Last year at this time, Colts fans were really hoping that backup quarterback Curtis Painter wouldn't get a chance to play as Indy went down the season's backstretch. But this year, if Peyton Manning keeps throwing picks, maybe Indy's faithful will be hoping the Colts give Painter a chance.

Just kidding, Peyton, but it is painful to watch No. 18 endure his worst stretch of passing since his rookie season of 1998. Counting Sunday's 38-35 loss in overtime to Dallas, Manning has thrown a mind-boggling 11 interceptions in his past three games, including four of which were returned for touchdowns.

I can almost hear ex-Colts head coach Jim Mora now: "Playoffs? Playoffs? Playoffs?'' In truth, the Colts still have a path to the postseason, but they had better start getting healthier and playing better starting next week at equally desperate Tennessee. Otherwise a non-playoff season really could unfold in Indy for the first time since Mora lost his job in 2001.

• This fourth-quarter comeback business with Matt Ryan is getting serious. The Atlanta quarterback has apparently never met a late deficit he couldn't surmount, and now the Falcons (10-2) are on top and riding high because of it. Atlanta beat the Bucs 28-24, climbing out of a 10-point, fourth-quarter hole on the strength of more Ryan heroics. It was the sixth fourth-quarter comeback win Ryan has led Atlanta to this season.

The Falcons looked to finally be on the ropes at Tampa Bay, but even the Bucs' power of orange didn't work against the team with the NFC's best record. The Falcons became the league's first 10-game winner (the Jets or Pats will get there Monday night, barring a tie), and now they're really in a commanding position when it comes to the NFC's home-field advantage.

For the Bucs (7-5), the loss was very damaging in terms of their wild-card hopes. They trail the Eagles, Giants, Falcons, Saints, Bears and Packers in the playoff seeding picture, and of that group of seven teams, only five of them will earn a berth due to the NFC West winner getting the conference's other spot.

• Good call by me, eh, to predict the Chargers would run the table and win the AFC West at 11-5 early last week? That's analysis you can't get just anywhere on the Internet. San Diego lost in December for the first time since 2005, and looked like their old September and October selves in doing it.

The Raiders out-rushed the Chargers 251-21, with San Diego registering zero first downs on the ground. Now Oakland's (6-6) alive again in the AFC West, with the Raiders having swept the Chargers for the first time since 2001.

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