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Jags fail to deliver, Ravens thriving on Rice diet, plus more Snaps

PITTSBURGH -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we review a captivating Week 15 of playoff-implication football ...

• They say to be a champion, you've got to beat a champion, and the Jacksonville Jaguars clearly weren't ready to take that step and land that knockout blow Sunday in Indianapolis. But, to be fair, Peyton Manning and the defending champion AFC Colts had something to do with that.

The rest of the NFL probably doesn't want to hear this, but recent reports of Indy's demise just might have been exaggerated. That much is apparent in the wake of the Colts' 34-24 win over Jacksonville, in a game that held the key to Indianapolis's playoff hopes. The Colts are still in control of their own fate, just two weeks after some left them for dead at 6-6. As for the Jaguars, they still haven't ever beaten Indianapolis twice in a row.

Indy's three-game losing streak and Peyton Manning's interception troubles suddenly seem pretty long ago. The Jaguars (8-6) could have clinched their first AFC South title with a win at Indianapolis, but the Colts (8-6) weren't ready to concede the division they've owned for most of its nine-year history.

Manning's clutch play notwithstanding, the Colts' victory came via an improbable fashion: Their ground game. Ranked last in the NFL coming into Week 15, with just 70.7 yards per game on average, Indy's running game exploded for 155 yards, led by Donald Brown's career-best 129-yard effort on just 14 carries. In other words, the Colts beat the ball-control, rushing-happy Jaguars at their own game. Trailing the whole day, Jacksonville rushed for just 67 yards on 22 carries -- roughly 90 yards fewer than its season average, which ranked second in the league entering Sunday.

The Colts rolled up 300 yards of offense before the third quarter was even half over, and built a 24-10 lead at that point on the strength of 123 yards by Brown and two Manning touchdown passes to receiver Austin Collie. Manning finished 29-of-39 for 229 yards, with those two scores and a second consecutive interception-less game. (I guess he's OK, folks. Nothing to see here. Let's all just move along.)

The Colts and Jaguars have now split their season series, but if Indy can win at Oakland next week and at home against Tennessee in Week 17, it won't matter what Jack Del Rio's team does in response (Jacksonville plays home against Washington next week, then at Houston). The Colts will have pieced together a 10-6 record and their most unlikely playoff team yet, even though they're likely to enter the Super Bowl tournament no better than a No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the AFC.

No matter. The Colts are alive, and that's enough for now. Their playoff season essentially started two weeks ago, and so far, so good. Life in the NFL dictates you've got to knock the champion out, but as Week 16 looms, the Colts are definitely still standing.

• Get ready for the Michael Vick for MVP candidacy to go wild this week in light of Philadelphia's 38-31 miracle comeback win over the Giants at the New Meadowlands. Vick followed his worst first half of the season with his most sensational second half, as the Eagles scored 28 points in the game's final 7:28 to stun the Giants and give themselves what amounts to a two-game lead in the NFC East with two weeks to play.

Vick was just 6-of-10 for 33 yards passing in the first half, with one interception. The Giants hit Vick early and often, sacking him twice and leaving him more harried and battered than he has been at any point in his renaissance season.

But after the intermission, Vick was virtually unstoppable, throwing for 209 yards and three touchdowns, and running for a fourth score. In the fourth quarter alone, Vick had two touchdown passes and a rushing touchdown, and he finished with 130 yards on the ground, his sixth career 100-yard game. The Giants did plenty to lose this game and get themselves beat, but the Eagles' comeback was Vick orchestrated, and his magical comeback season continues.

• Even if the Giants make the playoffs, and Tampa Bay's loss at home to Detroit really helps New York's cause in that regard, that's a defeat that could haunt Coughlin's team and essentially seal its fate. It was New York's sixth consecutive loss to the Eagles, counting the playoffs, and it's going to make the Giants take the much tougher wild-card route in the postseason.

How in the world can New York rookie punter Matt Dodge explain not booting the ball into the fourth row on the game's final play, that 65-yard DeSean Jackson punt return touchdown? Even if Dodge was aiming for out of bounds and mis-hit the ball down the middle of the field, that's simply not acceptable. You can't let Jackson get his hands on the ball in that situation. No ifs, ands or buts. Dodge said he intended to kick out of bounds, but received a high snap and didn't think he could afford to take the time to kick directionally.

Bad call there. Shank it out of bounds, and explain later.

• Very smart move, Cam Cameron, getting Ray Rice much more involved in the Baltimore offensive game plan. There has been some discontent lately in veteran corners of the locker room, and most of it dealt with some lack of confidence in Cameron's play-calling. But in a game Baltimore had to have to keep its division title hopes alive, the Ravens (10-4) got a monstrous game from Rice to beat visiting New Orleans 30-24.

Rice, a third-year running back, had a season-high 153 yards rushing on a whopping 31 carries (4.9 average), with touchdowns both on the ground (10 yards) and via receiving (17 yards). Rice hadn't ripped off a run longer than 30 yards this season, but had a key 50-yarder in the fourth quarter, helping Baltimore's defense protect a fourth-quarter lead for a change.

The Saints fell to 10-4 and saw their six-game winning streak snapped, but they're still alive in the NFC South race, even with Atlanta (12-2) knocking off Seattle 34-18 late Sunday afternoon. The Saints travel to the Falcons next Monday night in the NFC South showdown we've been waiting for since Atlanta upset New Orleans in the Superdome in Week 4.

• Unlike last year, when the Texans played some of their best ball and mounted a season-ending four-game winning streak after being knocked out of realistic playoff contention, there will be no such late-season Band-Aid applied to Houston's record this year. The Texans have now dropped three in a row and seven of eight since starting the season a promising 4-2.

Looks to me like the Texans have decided to mail it in from here on out, judging from that stinker of a 31-17 loss at Tennessee, where Houston trailed 24-3 at halftime. The Texans woeful pass defense even made the Titans look potent through the air, giving up 164 yards and two Kerry Collins touchdowns in the first half. Maybe that Monday-night heartbreaker at home against Baltimore was the final blow Houston could endure this season without giving up hope.

None of this can be good news for embattled Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, whose job security has to be an issue that Houston owner Bob McNair must soon address -- one way or another.

• That is one heck of a lumberjack beard sported by Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick these days. He looks like one of the Smith brothers on a bottle of cough syrup. I honestly don't know how he buckles his chin strap around that bird's nest. But it doesn't seem to throw off his passing, because Fitzpatrick and Buffalo went down to Miami on Sunday and handed the Dolphins yet another loss on their home field.

• How else could Miami's playoff hopes die this season but with a loss at home? The Dolphins dropped to 7-7 and out of the AFC playoff picture with a 17-14 loss to visiting Buffalo. Miami is now a staggering 1-6 at home this season, and 6-1 on the road.

When does a little heat start building under the fanny of head coach Tony Sparano in Dolphin-ville? He led Miami to that surprising 11-5 record and an AFC East title as a rookie head coach in 2008, but including their playoff loss to Baltimore at home that January, the Dolphins are a mediocre 14-17 ever since.

• At first glance, it seems remarkable that the reliable Dan Carpenter missed all four of his field goal attempts in Miami's loss. Before Sunday, Carpenter was 28-of-34 on the season, and in his first two years in the NFL, he failed on only four field goals attempts in 2008 and three in 2009. That's just 13 misses in 2¾ seasons.

But I'm willing to cut the guy a little slack, given that his four attempts in this case were from 48, 61, 53 and 48 yards. No chippies there.

• Does anyone anywhere think Mike and Kyle Shanahan have handled the latest Donovan McNabb benching the right way? The Shanahans were almost universally savaged by the talking-head set on the Sunday network pregame shows, and you can definitely sense the honeymoon is over for Mike Shanahan in D.C.

Between the clumsy way Mike Shanahan explained the first McNabb benching in Detroit, to the perception that Shanahan was at times needlessly trying to embarrass Albert Haynesworth this season, Shanahan's comeback season in the NFL hasn't been the smoothest of rides.

• That said, you can't really knock the results of Washington's decision to start Rex Grossman over McNabb. Chicago's one-time Super Bowl starter tied his career high with four touchdown passes and he threw for 322 yards in the 33-30 loss at Dallas.

But Good Rex was of course offset at times by Bad Rex. He threw two awful interceptions, including one that ended Washington's frantic comeback hopes on the game's final play.

• If it gets any better than that Lance Moore touchdown catch of a deflected pass in the extreme back left corner of the end zone in Baltimore, I haven't seen it. How Moore even ended up in position to grab that pass, which was intended for fellow Saints receiver Marques Colston, is a mystery.

• One by one, the improving Lions are really starting to exorcise some ghosts. Beating the Packers last week ended Detroit's long losing streak within the NFC North, and winning at Tampa Bay 23-20 in overtime Sunday gave the Lions their first road win since Oct. 28, 2007 -- an NFL-record run of 26 road losses in a row.

After so many near-misses this season, Detroit is starting to learn how to close out a game. A few weeks back, I predicted the Lions would finish the season strong and carry some of that momentum over into 2011, using their fast finish as a springboard to great success next season. Who knows? I might even be correct this time.

• Bucs rookie receiver Mike Williams had another big game, catching a team-best six passes for 96 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter.

Even though the TD came in a losing effort, I would imagine it hurts the Lions and their fans all the more when a guy named Mike Williams scores against them. Even if it's not, you know, that Mike Williams.

• Carolina beat Arizona for only its second win of the season on Sunday -- and got away with it. Every win is potentially costly to the Panthers (2-12) in the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes (if he declares for the NFL), but they got a break when the Bengals beat the Browns 19-17 in the blacked-out Battle of Ohio in Cincinnati.

The Bengals are now 3-11, and snapping their 10-game losing streak kept them one game better than Carolina, but that means they're No. 2 in terms of draft slot. If that trend holds, the Bengals will be out of Luck.

• Hard to believe, but it was less than two years ago that Carolina and Arizona met in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, a Cardinals' upset victory that turned out to be Jake Delhomme's Waterloo. The teams met again in Charlotte, but this time, rather than Delhomme and Kurt Warner, the starting quarterbacks were Jimmy Clausen for the Panthers and John Skelton for the Cardinals. Bit of a drop-off for both franchises, eh?

• Not a bad effort at all by Denver's Tim Tebow in his first career NFL start, in the loss at Oakland. But passing just 16 times for 138 yards and rushing for 78 yards probably isn't a blueprint that will get it done for you every week at quarterback. Tebow did make some big plays, though, running for a 40-yard touchdown and throwing a 33-yard score to receiver Brandon Lloyd.

I suppose that's about what we all should expect from Tebow, who made his name running the ball at the University of Florida every bit as much as he did throwing it.

• If we're talking about strictly the most valuable player in the league, how can you argue that anyone means more to his team than Matt Cassel does to the Chiefs? We saw what they were without him last week at San Diego, when Kansas City produced just 67 yards of offense in a 31-0 loss.

But in Sunday's 27-13 Chiefs' win at St. Louis, Cassel helped keep his club in first place in the AFC West, throwing for 184 yards and a touchdown just 11 days after having surgery to remove his appendix.

With Cassel back, the Rams (6-8) couldn't just key on the Kansas City running game like San Diego did. The result was the Chiefs (9-5) rumbled for 210 yards rushing, with Jamaal Charles leading the way with 126 yards and a touchdown on just 11 carries.

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