Monday December 13th, 2010

CHICAGO -- Musings, observations and the occasional Week 14 insight as we take in the wild winter carnival between the cold-weather Patriots and the cold-weather Bears at the big snow globe known as Solider Field ...

• I guess we all got a vivid lesson on how valuable Aaron Rodgers is to the Packers. True, Rodgers didn't make much happen when he was in the game Sunday in Detroit. But with him sidelined from the second quarter on with his second concussion of the season, the Packers offense was mostly anemic in the hands of backup quarterback Matt Flynn, who was at the wheel for the rest of Green Bay's damaging 7-3 loss.

If this season doesn't turn out to be the year they were hoping for in Green Bay, Sunday's outcome will be remembered as the day when it all became painfully apparent that disappointment was in store. Things are suddenly starting to look bleak for the Packers, the team I picked (for the second consecutive year) to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. After its 7-3 start, Green Bay (8-5) has lost two of three games, both on the road, in dome environments (Atlanta and Detroit).

This loss really puts the Packers' playoff hopes in some jeopardy, because with games at New England, and home against the Giants and Bears in the final three weeks, there will be no more soft touches on Green Bay's schedule. The Lions' upset was a boon for NFC playoff hopefuls like the Giants (8-4), Eagles (9-4), Bucs (8-5) and the NFC North-leading Bears (9-4), who despite their blowout loss at home to New England remain one game ahead of the Packers, plus own the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Packers like backup quarterback Flynn's potential, but until Sunday, they never had to ask him to win a game. Now they have, and the former LSU standout couldn't come through, finishing 15 of 26 for 177 yards and one interception in leading Green Bay to only one field goal in six possessions. Flynn ended his best drive with a hugely costly interception to Lions middle linebacker DeAndre Levy in the end zone, when the game was 3-0 Green Bay and there for the taking.

Green Bay is now just 3-2 in the season's second half, and isn't looking anything like the potent club that ripped off a 7-1 close to the 2009 season and then proved to be a tough out for Arizona in that 51-45 overtime classic in the first round of the NFC playoffs. Unless the Bears collapse, the Packers might have to win out to ensure themselves a second straight playoff berth, and that doesn't look too promising with next week's trip to Foxboro looming.

The Packers offense just hasn't clicked on all cylinders yet, and Sunday's effort represented the nadir on that front. Green Bay ran for just 66 yards on 20 carries against the Lions, and it's never a good sign when two of your top three rushers are quarterbacks: Rodgers led the way with two runs for 25 yards, and Flynn was third with 10 yards on three scrambles. (Green Bay totaled 258 yards.) The Lions registered four sacks, and their intimidating defensive front at times overwhelmed a Packers offensive line that has been either mediocre or outmatched this season.

Make no mistake, Green Bay's season is still alive. But unless Rodgers returns to the lineup quickly, and the Packers offense starts to play up to its potential starting next week, there once again will be no title in Titletown.

• For a guy who hadn't thrown a pick in his past five games, that was criminal to see Rodgers' interception streak end when the ball bounced out of Greg Jennings' hands into the waiting arms of Lions strong safety Amari Spievey. Jennings doesn't have oven mitts for hands too often, but he'll never drop a better pass in his entire NFL career.

• Does anyone in the NFL put on more exciting finishes than the Jaguars? A 59-yard field goal to win. A Hail Mary pass that actually works, to win again. And on Sunday at home against the Raiders, Jacksonville scored 31 of its 38 points in the second half, overcoming a 10-point halftime deficit.

The Jaguars (8-5) now get their shot to put away the Colts (7-6) next Sunday in Indianapolis, in the process all but locking up the AFC South and becoming the league's most surprising division winner (yeah, even more surprising, potentially, than the Chiefs).

Jacksonville has become one of the NFL's most explosive, big-play teams, and it churned out three touchdowns of 30-plus yards against the Raiders: running back Rashad Jennings' 74-yard run, receiver Jason Hill's 48-yard catch and Maurice Jones-Drew's game-winning 30-yard run with just 1:34 remaining.

I kept waiting for Jacksonville to fade, but at this point, how can you not take these Jaguars as a serious threat to make some playoff noise? If they reach January, I don't think there are too many AFC teams that will be eager to face Jack Del Rio's guys.

• Redskins kicker Graham Gano started his day at home against Tampa Bay by missing field goal attempts of 34 yards (hit the upright) and 24 yards (wide left) in the rain. Starting Monday, Washington's kicker should be known as Graham Gone-o. Right, Redskins?

At least the game-tying extra point failure wasn't Gano's fault. Holder Hunter Smith had the high snap sail through his hands, and yes, that was the only way that Redskins' demoralizing 17-16 loss could have ended.

Like I said last week, Mike Shanahan now understands what he's dealing with in D.C. This is no ordinary rebuilding program he has undertaken in Washington. There's at least a decade of bad karma at play here that he's got to try to reverse.

• Two outstanding individual performances were completely wasted in defeat to two different Florida-based teams: Redskins running back Ryan Torain churns for a career-best 172 yards on 24 carries against the Bucs, including 158 in the first half. And in Jacksonville, Darren McFadden produces 123 yards rushing (86 receiving) and three touchdowns, but the Raiders defense gives up 38 points to Jacksonville.

• It's getting somewhat overlooked thanks to the team's success, but Gerald McCoy or no Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay's rushing defense still has a ways to go, huh? The Bucs were absolutely gouged by Torain early on, giving up more than 121 yards rushing in the first quarter alone. That was the most first-quarter yards by any running back this season.

• Now that it's over, it's simply mind-boggling to think that Detroit went more than three years without a division win, losing a post-merger NFL-record 19 in a row to the Packers, Bears and Vikings. The Lions hadn't won in the NFC North since beating Chicago on the road in Week 8 of 2007 -- roughly 162 weeks ago.

The Lions finally broke their almost season-long streak of near-misses and got their third victory in 13 games, but I really don't know how. Quarterback Drew Stanton was picked off twice, and threw for just 117 yards, connecting just once to Calvin Johnson for 44 yards. The Lions also punted eight times. But when your defense pitches a near-shutout, you can make seven points stand up quite nicely.

• The Falcons (11-2) dispatched the woeful Panthers (1-12) with ease, and now Atlanta's winning streak is up to seven games, its longest since 1998. That was also the one and only Super Bowl season in the history of the Falcons franchise, and feel free to draw your own analogies from that coincidence.

Atlanta doesn't ever really wow you. It's just week-in and week-out solid, and the Falcons simply don't beat themselves in any phase of the game. Matt Ryan, Michael Turner and Roddy White again turned in big games for Atlanta, and you can file that development under the heading of, So what else is new?

If I were to reconfigure my Super Bowl picks, I'd take Atlanta and New England without a second's hesitation. (I had Baltimore over Green Bay in the preseason).

• On the flip side, the Panthers have now dropped seven in a row, and I can't remember the last time I saw an NFL passing game this helpless. Carolina had 33 yards of total offense in the first half of its 31-10 home loss, and Carolina finished with 76 yards passing. The Panthers average gain per pass play was a miniscule 2.5 yards, including Atlanta's five sacks.

If anyone in Carolina thinks the Panthers don't need to take a quarterback with the NFL's first pick next April, just because they drafted Jimmy Clausen in the second round this year, they need to think again. Clausen has thrown for one touchdown, with seven interceptions and a 55.0 passer rating.

• Speaking of inept quarterbacking with a sub-topic pertaining to the Panthers, I think the Browns have probably seen enough of Jake Delhomme to know they definitely overpaid for him last offseason. Delhomme had an interception, a fumble loss and just 86 yards of passing in Cleveland's desultory 13-6 loss at Buffalo. The Browns couldn't even cross midfield in the second half, despite five possessions.

• Of course it's paranoid and patently ridiculous to think that there was some divine intervention at play in that Metrodome roof collapse, all in order to give Brett Favre more time to heal his sprained shoulder and keep his consecutive-game starting streak alive. But, still ... I must admit it quickly crossed my mind Sunday morning.

And if I had a dollar to lay down on it, I still think Favre finds a way to play against New York Monday night in Detroit. It's what he does.

• It's hard to believe the Metrodome roof-collapse was real. It looked like a special-effects scene in some poorly written action/disaster flick. Could Vikings owner Zygi Wilf have asked for a better visual than that in his quest to get his team a new stadium in the Twin Cities?

• All those years I spent covering the Vikings in the ridiculously loud Metrodome, I always thought they'd blow the roof off due to too much noise. In 1998 alone, when Minnesota's 15-1 team set the NFL one-season scoring record with 556 points, my eardrums didn't recover until the following March. But in the end, it was snow -- and not sound -- that brought down the big Teflon top.

• I know it's the right thing to do, letting people in gratis Monday night when the Giants and Vikings play at Detroit's Ford Field. But in the case of Lions fans who now get to watch the sub-.500 Vikings play for free, haven't they suffered enough?

• It would seem the Jets are indeed every bit as lost and demoralized coming out of this week's game against Miami as they looked leaving Foxboro on Monday night. The Patriots did a number on them -- and their confidence level. Rex Ryan can talk big and bold, but he might not be able to put this Humpty Dumpty back together again in time for a big playoff run.

And that tripping incident on the Jets sideline on Dolphins' defensive back Nolan Carroll isn't going to play too well around the league, either. Just another headache for New York this season. Carroll was initially hurt, but returned to the game.

Get ready for Trip-gate.

• Can't recall a worse slate of blowouts on a late Sunday-afternoon schedule than what we endured in Week 14. The Patriots killing the Bears in Chicago. The Chargers drubbing the first-place Chiefs in San Diego. The 49ers beating up on the Seahawks. The Saints routing the Rams, the Cardinals shredding the Broncos, and the Dolphins and Jets play a low-scoring snooze-fest in New Jersey.

And the six early games weren't anything to write home about either, other than the Jaguars-Raiders thriller. Maybe the rare Monday doubleheader will salvage Week 14.

• Couldn't help but think Antwaan Randle-El was channeling Lynn Swann with that spectacular, leaping 22-yard catch of a Ben Roethlisberger pass late in the first half against Cincinnati. If Randle-El had made that catch to help Pittsburgh win a Super Bowl, NFL Films would have turned it into a three-part mini-series.

• Shaun Suisham made his first three field goal attempts as a Steelers kicker at Heinz Field on Sunday, and you have to admit the former Redskin and Cowboy has been a tremendous replacement for the erratic Jeff Reed, so far. Pittsburgh probably even wishes it would have 86'd Reed weeks before it did.

Suisham is now 9 of 9 on field goals in four games with Pittsburgh, plus a perfect 9 of 9 on point-after attempts. He made kicks of 23, 35 and 41 yards for Pittsburgh against Cincinnati, representing all of the points generated by the Steelers offense (both touchdowns were scored on interception returns by Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley).

Suisham even helped out the club by filling in admirably last week in Baltimore when Steelers punter Daniel Sepulveda was lost for the season with a torn ACL in the first half against the Ravens.

• Polamalu has been a low-impact player at times this season, but he's certainly making a heck of a closing charge in 2010. After his game-turning strip sack of Joe Flacco last week in Baltimore, The Hair was at it again Sunday, with a pick-six of Carson Palmer and a second interception late in Pittsburgh's win against Cincy.

I don't know if it's quite enough for Polamalu to warrant some MVP consideration, but he's rapidly working his way onto my radar screen in terms of the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award.

• A postgame rumble involving the Bengals and Steelers in Pittsburgh? Really? Too bad Cincinnati didn't show that much fight during the game.

• Someone on Washington's coaching staff needs to inform Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall that it's not against league rules to tackle. Only to tackle using your helmet as a weapon. Big difference.

Hall gave up a 64-yard catch-and-run to Bucs rookie receiver Arrelious Benn in the first half, and looked as if he was trying to talk Benn to the ground rather than tackle him. I'm guessing Hall's role model growing up was Deion Sanders.

• At different points this season, I've written stories on what's wrong with the games of both Mark Sanchez and Peyton Manning, and both quarterbacks immediately rebounded. I suppose Carson Palmer probably wants me to give him the same treatment about now, but somehow I don't think it will help. Palmer was dreadful again in the Bengals' loss, throwing three picks, including two for return touchdowns.

The Bengals have now tied a team record with 10 losses in a row, and Palmer has 18 interceptions and the worst passer rating (78.1) in a full season since 2004.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.