A loaded wild-card field, an MVP pick and more Snap Judgments
• There have been plenty of wild-card teams of recent vintage that entered the playoffs and made some real noise from the No. 5 or No. 6 slot, including last year's Jets, the Ravens of 2008 and, of course, the Giants in 2007 and Steelers in 2005. And after Sunday's action, it's pretty apparent that this season's wild-card field will be stacked with quality teams too.
In the AFC, either the Ravens or the Steelers (both 11-4) will be one of the wild cards, and the Jets (10-5) the other. In the NFC nothing has been settled, but beware of Green Bay (9-6) and New Orleans (10-4), who currently own the inside track for the wild-card berths.
Green Bay is the potential wild-card team that exited Week 16 with the biggest dose of momentum heading into January. The Packers in essence started their playoff run Sunday with a 45-17 destruction of the Giants at Lambeau, and they now hold the key head-to-head tiebreaker with New York. Green Bay still must beat Chicago at home next week to clinch a berth, but the Bears have already locked up the NFC North and won't have as much to play for as the Packers.
Green Bay has a hot quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, and a defense that's starting to come together. The Packers picked off Eli Manning four times and forced six New York turnovers on Sunday. And facing Rodgers will make any playoff opponent nervous. Coming back from his second concussion of the season, Rodgers threw for 404 yards and four touchdowns against New York, with Green Bay amassing 515 yards of total offense. The Packers scored in every quarter and buried the Giants 24-3 after halftime.
If the Packers put a whipping on the Bears next week at home, they'll go into the playoffs without being intimidated at all by the thought of playing in Chicago for the second time this season. The Packers have already won at Philadelphia, and at the Jets this season, and their strong performance at New England last week also gives them confidence that they can handle the wild-card route.
We've got one more week for the regular-season storylines to unfold, but I've already got the feeling that this year's wild-card teams won't be easy outs. And that hunch starts with what I see from Green Bay, but could include three other strong wild-card qualifiers as well.
• I'm certain Michael Vick is going to garner his share of MVP votes, but while his is a one-of-a-kind story this year, it would be a travesty to overlook the historic nature of Tom Brady's season. No. 12 has been fantastic all season long.
What's Brady's most impressive statistical feat this year? It's hard to choose. How about going 10 full games without an interception, with Brady on Sunday breaking Bernie Kosar's 1990-91 NFL record of 308 consecutive passes without a pick? Brady finished his work day in New England's 34-3 AFC-East-clinching win at Buffalo 15 of 27 for 140 yards and three touchdowns, and has now thrown 319 passes without tossing one to the wrong color jersey. Brady's last interception came in a three-point overtime win against Baltimore, in Week 6. That was mid-October, more than two months ago.
Brady's three touchdowns in Buffalo gave him an NFL-high 34 this season, against a league-low four interceptions. And he leads a New England offense that has scored at least 31 points every week during the course of its seven-game winning streak, without turning the ball over once. Let me repeat that: The Patriots have gone seven consecutive games, well over 400 plays, without a turnover.
No disrespect to the season Vick is having, but at this point I know whose name will be on my MVP ballot.
• Now that Troy Smith and Mike Singletary have gone at it on the sideline, as they did Sunday in the second half of San Francisco's loss at St. Louis, can there be any more doubt about the woefully lacking management skills of the 49ers head coach? He doesn't seem capable of getting along with either of his quarterbacks -- Alex Smith and Troy Smith -- and his yo-yo routine of repeatedly pulling them out of the lineup only reinforces the perception that Singletary doesn't know what he wants for longer than 20 minutes at a time.
Troy Smith was eventually benched in favor of Alex Smith in the 25-17 loss to the Rams, which mercifully ended any chance of the sad-sack 49ers winning the mild, mild NFC West. As for Singletary, his time in San Francisco arrived Sunday night when the Niners fired him.
How fitting that the loss to St. Louis dropped his team to 5-10, because he's been running the NFL equivalent of a dime-store operation all season long.
• The Jets have reason to like what they saw out of their offense in Sunday's 38-34 loss at Chicago, but it's getting harder all the time to pretend New York has an elite defense. The Bears aren't a bad offensive team by any stretch, but when they can put up 38 points on you, rolling up 322 total yards, it could make for big trouble in the playoffs against the heavyweights of the AFC.
With Mark Sanchez's shoulder looking sound against the Bears, and Shonn Greene again running strong (70 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries), the Jets offense seems to be fully over its recent slump. But there's no reason to get too giddy about New York's just-clinched wild-card berth. The Jets need to tighten things up defensively, and now, or it's going to be a shorter playoff run than the one they went on last January.
• David Garrard picked the worst possible time to turn back into David Garrard. Under pressure deep in his own territory early in overtime, the Jaguars quarterback threw an ill-advised sidearm pass on third down that was intercepted by Redskins second-year cornerback Kevin Barnes. Moments later, Washington kicker Graham Gano made Garrard and Jacksonville pay for the horrible miscue, banging home the game-winner from 31 yards for a 20-17 Redskins win.
The Jaguars' (8-7) playoff hopes are only flickering after the loss, and that's the kind of pick that likely prompts Jacksonville to go shopping for another quarterback in 2011. Garrard played quite well during Jacksonville's surprisingly strong second half this season, but the Jaguars have seen him make that kind of killer mistake in the clutch a bit too often over the years.
• So the Jaguars can still make the playoffs at 9-7 if they win at Houston next Sunday while the Colts fall to Tennessee in Indianapolis. I sure wouldn't want to have to rely on the Titans for any help these days, would you? The way Tennessee is playing, Jacksonville's season is as good as over. But in truth, for a good bit of Sunday, the Jaguars were looking like the air went out of their balloon with last week's showdown loss at the Colts.
• Three more touchdowns for New England tight ends on Sunday, and that segment of the Patriots depth chart has now produced a ridiculous 16 touchdowns in 15 games -- nine more scores than Pats tight ends produced all of last season. By comparison, New England wide receivers have just 17 touchdowns this year, one more than the three-man tight end contingent.
Rookie Rob Gronkowski had two more touchdown catches and now leads all New England pass-catchers with nine. With rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez (six touchdowns this season) inactive with an injury, veteran tight end Alge Crumpler was worked into the mix and wound up catching his first touchdown of the season and first as a Patriot.
• So much for the delusional notions that the Redskins were tanking their games late this season to improve their draft status and maybe land a franchise quarterback. No matter how you feel about Washington's handling of veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb, let's at least be honest enough to admit the Redskins offense has looked better these past two weeks with Rex Grossman in the lineup and McNabb on the bench.
Grossman was 19 of 39 for 182 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the overtime win at Jacksonville, and he's thrown for five scores and three interceptions in his two starts replacing McNabb. He's not the future in D.C., but he's far from a disaster at present.
About the only real quibble you can have about Grossman right now is his decision to do the Gator chomp after firing a touchdown pass to tight end Fred Davis on Sunday. Maybe it was being back in Florida that got him all nostalgic for the Spurrier era.
• Break up those suddenly ferocious Lions. Detroit has some honest-to-goodness mojo going after scoring 17 points in the final 4:37 to climb out of a 10-point, fourth-quarter hole and shock the Dolphins 34-27. That's three straight wins for the Lions (their best such run since 2007), and two consecutive road victories after the embarrassment of 26 away losses in a row.
I'm already on record saying Detroit's a decent candidate to be next season's turnaround team, and if the Lions could ever get 2009 first overall pick Matthew Stafford healthy for longer than two weeks, they might really be dangerous. If Detroit can win with Drew Stanton and Shaun Hill under center these past three weeks -- beating Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Miami -- there's a pretty good nucleus of talent coming together under head coach Jim Schwartz.
• Boy, the weather gods have sure turned on the Vikings with a fury. What else can possibly go wrong meteorologically for Minnesota this season? I suppose some sort of weather-related catastrophe is still possible for next week at Detroit (uh-oh, another dome). Now the Vikings have to play their scheduled Sunday nighter in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, due to the snowstorm that hit the City of Brotherly Love on Sunday. Three straight weeks, weather has wreaked havoc on Minnesota's schedule, and that hasn't happened in any of the team's other 49 seasons in the NFL.
• I was asked on the radio Sunday why the NFL didn't just schedule another Monday-night doubleheader this week, like it did two weeks ago when the Giants-Viking game had to be moved to Detroit.
Does anyone think the NFL, even for a second, considered putting NBC's Sunday night game up against ESPN's Monday night game, thereby ticking off both of their ratings-loving TV partners? I know the bad weather on the East Coast might not be done until Monday afternoon, and that was a handy reason for the league to opt for Tuesday. But don't forget that ESPN and NBC both pony up beaucoup for exclusivity in their prime time windows, and the NFL was going to make sure they both got it. Voila. Tuesday night it was.
• After the Eagles beat the Vikings Tuesday night (and they will), they'll have just five days to get ready for their Week 17 game, at home against Dallas. That's not exactly a level playing field, given that the Cowboys will have three more days of preparation. But it's not the biggest deal in the world. The Eagles are at home, and don't have to deal with both a short week and travel. And don't forget, the Eagles will have another advantage in that the Cowboys likely will be giving second-year quarterback Steven McGee his first NFL start, in Philadelphia.
• That said, the Cowboys might have found something here with the ex-Texas A&M quarterback. McGee looked pretty poised and smooth in the Cowboys' heartbreaking 27-26 loss at Arizona on Christmas night. His 11 of 17 passing for 111 yards, with one touchdown and a 102.8 rating deserved a better fate than it got.
• Years from now, the Tennessee Titans will be the answer to the trivia question that every fan of the 2010 Dolphins knows by heart. The question? Who was the only team Miami beat at home all season, en route to its 1-7 record before the faithful? Come to think of it, that Week 10 loss at Miami was right around when things started getting really ugly for the Titans.
The Dolphins lost to visiting Detroit on Sunday, and their 1-7 home mark tied the franchise's worst ever. That could land Miami head coach Tony Sparano firmly on the hot seat as Week 17 looms.
• Call it the Year of the Danny in the NFL. First, New England running back Danny Woodhead becomes everyone's favorite little guy, and now Rams receiver-return man Danny Amendola is following suit. The 5-11, 186-pound Amendola had a key 84-yard non-scoring kickoff return for St. Louis, and chipped in with a team-high eight catches for 53 yards in the Rams' eight-point conquest of San Francisco.
I guess that leaves only Washington's Danny Snyder as the luck-less man out once again.