Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take in a 16-game NFL Sunday in which 16 teams entered game No. 16 with their Super Bowl chances still alive ...
• The Ravens were 13-7 victors in unimpressive fashion Sunday at home against Cincinnati, but their biggest win of the day may have unfolded half a continent away in Kansas City. That's where the Raiders humbled the hometown Chiefs, 31-10, a result that wound up knocking Kansas City from the No. 3 to No. 4 seed in the AFC playoffs.
What's that got to do with the Ravens? Plenty, because No. 5 Baltimore now opens its postseason next week at Kansas City, rather than at Indianapolis. That's a fortuitous turn of events for the Ravens, because if there's one quarterback who has had his way with Baltimore's defense over the years, it's Peyton Manning.
Baltimore hasn't defeated Manning since 2001, and Indianapolis has ended the Ravens' season in the playoffs twice in the past four years. In 2006, the Colts won at Baltimore in the divisional round, upsetting the No. 2 Ravens 15-6 and ending their 13-3 season in one-and-done fashion. Last year, the top-seeded Colts got Baltimore again in the divisional round, beating the Ravens 20-3 in a game that didn't seem as close as the score would indicate. The Ravens also lost 17-15 to Indianapolis in the 2009 regular season, in late November.
The Ravens (12-4) are a prideful bunch and maybe they wanted to get another shot at the injury-depleted Colts, especially with Indianapolis being a No. 3 seed this time around and having a relatively weak 10-6 record. But Baltimore won't have to match wits once again with Manning, and that's a break for the Ravens, who have consistently shown signs of having No. 18 lodged in their heads. Why deal with your No. 1 nemesis if you don't have to?
After all, Baltimore has played New England into overtime this season in Foxboro, and split its tight series with Pittsburgh. The Ravens beat the Jets in the season opener in New York, and should match up well against the playoff-novice Chiefs, who looked dreadful in getting dominated by the Raiders. It was only Indianapolis that posed something of a roadblock for Baltimore, and now it can't see the Colts unless both reach the AFC title game.
Sunday was a win-win day for Baltimore, even if Pittsburgh did rout Cleveland and lock up the AFC North title and a first-round bye. The Ravens almost certainly aren't going to get Manning-ed again this year in the playoffs, and that may be the best news they could have received in Week 17.
• In the case of the Saints, Chiefs and Ravens, all three teams will be entering the playoffs with something less than full-blown momentum. All three came into Sunday with postseason berths locked up and got to close out the regular season at home. But all three struggled, with the Saints losing to a plucky Tampa Bay team, the Chiefs getting drilled by the Raiders and the Ravens squeaking past the four-win Bengals.
Teams have won Super Bowl titles with or without taking momentum into the playoffs, so there's no hard-and-fast rule. But the Saints blunted some of the good vibes from their big win at Atlanta Monday night, and the Chiefs have to be a little concerned about Matt Cassel's horrible 11 of 33, 115-yard, two interception showing against Oakland. Both Cassel and top running back Jamaal Charles took a beating at the hands of the Raiders.
Baltimore won, but it might be the least impressive 12-4 team in recent NFL history. The Bengals rolled up 395 yards against the Ravens, and Baltimore struggled in the running game and in protecting quarterback Joe Flacco. Making matters worse, the Ravens suffered three significant injuries, with cornerback Josh Wilson (shoulder stinger), offensive left tackle Michael Oher (sprained knee) and safety Ed Reed (ribs) leaving the game.
The Saints might have injury issues coming out of their loss. New Orleans reported injuries to safety Malcolm Jenkins, tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Chris Ivory. When you add in the Colts' tougher-than-expected 23-20 defeat of Tennessee in Indianapolis, half of the AFC's six-team playoff field played uninspired football for much of Sunday.
• The six teams in the NFC's playoff field should be very, very happy that Tampa Bay lost at home to Detroit two weeks ago and won't be going to the postseason. Because if there's a better, more dangerous non-playoff team in the NFL, I haven't seen it. Second-year quarterback Josh Freeman gives his club a chance to win almost every game, and the Bucs simply don't back down to anyone.
• I can understand both the pro- and anti-Tom Coughlin arguments in New York. But I can also appreciate that Giants ownership rarely panics or gives into the knee-jerk demands of either the fans or media to fire a head coach. I don't know if Coughlin's going to reverse New York's penchant for second-half folds in 2011, but he'll get that opportunity, according to owner John Mara.
New York couldn't close the deal in that game against Philly two weeks ago, and that's almost inexcusable. But head coaches in the NFL probably shouldn't get canned too often for going 10-6 and blowing one game that changes the outcome of an entire season.
• After all the Vikings' negative energy that was often a big part of the Brad Childress era, going with the well-respected and low-key Leslie Frazier feels like the right move in Minnesota. Childress was high-strung and at times could be dictatorial, and swinging the pendulum back to a more flexible leadership style could be beneficial for the Vikings.
• I also can't argue with the notion that Jason Garrett deserves a shot as the full-time head coach in Dallas. He did enough with his half-season opportunity that Jerry Jones can't take the chance of letting him walk and then seeing him win somewhere else as a head coach.
But Cowboys receivers coach Ray Sherman is a quality coach in his own right, and he deserves a legitimate job interview for the Dallas opening. Not just one that fulfills Jones's obligation under the NFL's Rooney Rule. The Rooney Rule has made a difference since being instituted, but we can't afford to let it become just a maneuver or a charade of sorts.
• Despite not making the playoffs after being in first place in the AFC West after Week 10, the Raiders (8-8) have to feel good about themselves going 6-0 in the division (first team to do that since the 1970 merger and not make the postseason) and ending their seven-year streaks of both losing seasons and having 11 losses or more.
If the job of head coach Tom Cable really is in jeopardy, as has been reported, then Raiders owner Al Davis's recent run of exhibiting good sense and making solid decisions is over. Cable has Oakland headed in the right direction, and to start over now would be counterproductive.
If Cable is out, don't be surprised if reports indicate that loyalty issues had developed between him and first-year Raiders offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who some league insiders believe has been attempting to undermine Cable with Davis this season. That's more than a hunch on my part.
• If the Browns players had any say in the decision, Eric Mangini is beyond a goner in Cleveland. That's at least what the Browns' lackluster performance at home against the AFC North champion Steelers fairly well shouted. So much for putting up a good fight and making a statement of solidarity on behalf of your embattled head coach. Pittsburgh won 41-9, and it really wasn't that close.
Mangini is 10-22 in his two years in Cleveland, and despite the Browns playing hard for most of the season, averaging five wins is Dave Campo territory. Browns football czar Mike Holmgren did the fair thing last year and gave Mangini a whole season to make his case, but his time in Cleveland could be summed up with "close, but not quite.''
My sense is Holmgren will be making a mistake if he tries to return to the sideline in Cleveland next season, but taking a vigorous run at ESPN's Jon Gruden is a move that would help the Browns return to relevancy in 2011.
• You could say roughly the same thing about how hard the Dolphins played on Tony Sparano's behalf Sunday in Foxboro. Miami took its gaudy 6-1 road record to New England and got waxed by the machine-like Patriots, 38-7. The Dolphins' effort was almost non-existent to the naked eye, and even New England's backups manhandled Miami's starters.
I know there's some sentiment the Dolphins aren't that far away and owner Stephen Ross shouldn't blow things up and start over in Miami, but I'm not really sure why. When I look at Sparano's team, I see a third-place club that's a lot closer to last than first in the AFC East. The underachieving Dolphins richly deserved their 7-9 record.
• Sparano might not be the only dead man walking in Miami. Could quarterback Chad Henne's stock have sunk any lower than it has late this season? Henne was yanked twice against the Patriots, in favor of Tyler Thigpen, and finished with just six completions in 16 attempts ( 61 yards and an interception).
And apparently Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall has given up on Henne, because reports had him virtually ignoring the Dolphins starting quarterback on the sideline on Sunday, but chatting often with Thigpen.
• Does anyone know what to make of the Packers' inability to bring their A-game each and every week? The Green Bay team that squeaked past the Bears wasn't the same group that hammered the Giants last week at Lambeau. But the Packers are in the playoffs now, and they're not going to depart without a fight.
Remember, Green Bay won at Philadelphia (where they'll play Sunday in the first round of the NFC playoffs) in the season opener, and played the Falcons very tough in the Georgia Dome, and split their season series with Chicago. The Packers aren't your garden variety No. 6 seed, but as I've noted already in the last few months, this is one very deep wild-card field.
• Lovie Smith was true to his word when saying midweek the Bears would play it straight and try to win at Green Bay. The Bears couldn't get much going on offense, and Jay Cutler's six sacks and two interceptions were very damaging. But Smith didn't play it safe, pull his quarterback and hand the Packers a playoff berth; and that's the way things should work in Week 17. But rarely do.
• Really, a Gatorade bath for Falcons owner Arthur Blank after Atlanta trounces Carolina and locks up the NFC's No. 1 seed? Even if it was water and not the sticky stuff, do you think the man brought a second suit to the Georgia Dome anticipating a celebratory drenching? Knowing Blank, he might have.
But didn't A.B. kind of learn a lesson of sorts a few years back about the danger of appearing a little too chummy with the players he employs (see Vick, Michael, with Blank pushing him around in wheelchair)? Maybe we should make a new rule: Owners don't get the Gatorade bucket treatment, unless they're trying to give someone the same thing.
• It certainly sounds like Brett Favre means it this time and has gotten the message. He shows no indication of leaving himself the wiggle room he has always kept in reserve when it comes to the retirement issue, and I believe him when he says "I know it's time.''
Then again, after all Favre has been through this season, how could he have possibly come to any other conclusion? At the end, like it usually is, even for the great ones, the choice to retire really wasn't his to make. It was made for him. His 41-year-old body has finally conceded that much.
• There were those who didn't think Ed Reed would even play this year after having offseason reconstructive hip surgery, but he did better than that. He played with even more than the usual level of Reed-like impact, intercepting his seventh and eighth passes in just 10 games on Sunday against the Bengals. Even at 32, in his ninth NFL season, Reed can find the football as well as any defender ever has.
• Joe Webb fever cooled off somewhat on Sunday, with the Vikings rookie quarterback not producing anywhere near as dynamically as he did in Tuesday night's upset at Philadelphia. He wasn't bad, completing 20 of 32 for 145 yards and an interception. But he didn't look like a younger version of Michael Vick against the Lions.
Webb has definitely played himself into the Vikings' future at the game's most pivotal position. But just where he fits on Minnesota's QB depth chart in 2011 depends on who else the Favre-less Vikings happen to acquire.
• We all know the NFL can overreact to events at times, but the league got one thing right this year: Making Week 17 feature all divisional games should be made permanent. While there weren't a bevy of close games or dramatic finishes on Sunday by any stretch, it still makes so much sense to pair off division rivals in the final week that you wonder why it wasn't thought of and adopted long ago?
• Has an NFL team ever had a more productive rookie class than Tampa Bay? The Bucs won 10 games with 10 rookie starters, and have an embarrassment of riches on that front. They got two more touchdowns from rookie receivers on Sunday in New Orleans: a 2-yard catch by Dezmon Briscoe and 18-yard scoring reception by Mike Williams.
As for Briscoe's, there wasn't a prettier touchdown pass and catch all season than Josh Freeman's 2-yard fade pattern to him in the extreme back right corner of the end zone. Briscoe caught the ball and somehow tapped his feet down in a space about the size of quarter.
• Sounds like Houston owner Bob McNair has made his decision, and he'll bring back head coach Gary Kubiak for another season, with the intent to pair him with new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. I guess that makes Houston's dismal season the fault of current Texans defensive coordinator Frank Bush. It's the first time in memory the state of Texas has turned on someone named Bush.
Phillips would be a great hire, and he'll get the Texans defense tightened up, to be sure. But if Houston still doesn't win and go to the playoffs in 2011, will it finally be time for Kubiak to bear the ultimate accountability?
• Does anybody handle the whole Week 17 to-play-or-not-to-play issue better than New England? Every year, the Patriots play it pretty straight, like their playoff hopes are on the line, even when they're not. Even Wes Welker's season-ending knee injury last year in Houston didn't prompt a major change of philosophy this time around (although Welker was held out on Sunday at home against Miami).
Tom Brady played into the second half against the Dolphins, and didn't leave the game for backup Brian Hoyer until New England was up 31-0 in the third quarter and was in complete command. No real surprise there. That has always been the Bill Belichick keep your foot on their neck approach.
• I can't imagine Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli is thrilled with Charlie Weis's sense of timing. Weis is leaving K.C. to become offensive coordinator at the University of Florida, and even if he will serve out the rest of this season with the Chiefs -- and undoubtedly be supremely professional going about his job -- it's now a potential distraction for a franchise trying to win its first playoff game since the Marty Schottenheimer era.
And Pioli really, really hates distractions. Even more so than most NFL coaching or executive types.
• That said, doesn't Josh McDaniels to Kansas City next year as Weis's replacement as offensive coordinator make all kind of sense? McDaniels knows the offense, knows the quarterback (Matt Cassel) and knows Pioli and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
It would be an almost seamless transition, but there is that one little detail of McDaniels working for Chiefs head coach Todd Haley, the guy who lectured him at midfield and refused to shake hands with him after a Kansas City loss at Denver. That would make for an interesting start to their working relationship.
• Just a quick final accounting of the five bold predictions I made with five weeks remaining in the regular season. It was a mixed bag, to be sure. I said ...
-- The Chargers would run the table and win the AFC West at 11-5, ending the regular season with a nine-game winning streak. Uh, not so much. The Norv-men lost to Oakland and Cincinnati in the final five weeks, and eliminated themselves with that egg-laying against the Bengals last week.
-- The Lions would be the losing team that finishes strong and build momentum for 2011. Pretty much nailed that. Detroit was 2-9 at the time, but ran off four wins in a row to end the season at 6-10, losing only at home to the Bears in the final five weeks. That's the Lions' first four-game winning streak since 1999, in the Bobby Ross era.
-- NFC West leader aside, the Titans were the 5-6 team with the best chance to still make the playoffs. A huge swing and a miss there. Jeff Fisher's club has won just once in that span, and until Sunday in Indianapolis, appeared to be mailing it in for weeks now.
-- The Giants and Bucs would be the two best teams to miss the NFC playoffs. That still stands up, especially in the case of the 10-6 Bucs, who just went into New Orleans and beat the Saints for a second consecutive season. That gave Tampa Bay its first victory all season against a team with winning record. New York went 10-6, too, but of course self-destructed two weeks ago against Philadelphia and never recovered from it.
-- Brett Favre wouldn't be the only big-name quarterback in the final five games of his tenure as his team's starter, because Mike Shanahan would come to the conclusion that Donovan McNabb is not the answer in D.C. That's a call that wasn't exactly hard to see coming, and given the way the McNabb saga has played out, what's really left to say?