Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 12 in the NFL that helped separate the pretenders from the contenders as December looms....
• Perhaps it's a fitting fate for the team that was known as the biggest tease in the NFL for the past several years, because 2011 in Houston is rapidly turning into a case of great expectations that will be flirted with but not entirely fulfilled.
The good news is that with five games remaining in the regular season, and the Texans now at 8-3 with five wins in a row, there's virtually nothing that could keep them from winning the AFC South and making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Hooray for Houston, and get the champagne readied and on ice.
But the bad news is there's virtually no way the Texans will have more to look forward to this season than that long-awaited playoff-clinching celebration. Not with Matt Leinart about to join Matt Schaub on the season-ending injury list, and the Texans suddenly staring at the cruel twist of going up against the rest of the AFC playoff field with either rookie T.J. Yates or journeyman veteran Kellen Clemens installed as the team's starting quarterback.
Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and the rest of the AFC's field of quarterbacks can be beaten. But let's be realistic: Houston's postseason chances just took a beating, courtesy of the broken collarbone suffered by Leinart in his first NFL start in exactly two years.
The Texans have a wonderful formula for victory this season, with their top-ranked defense and the NFL's second-best running game. But you have to have a quarterback of some note to be considered a serious Super Bowl threat, and at the moment Houston is fresh out in that department. Leinart's injury, suffered late in the first half of the Texans' workmanlike 20-13 win at Jacksonville on Sunday, would seem to signal that making the playoffs will be as good as it gets in Houston this year.
It's one thing to lose a quarterback as skilled as Schaub to a season-ending foot injury and have a backup like Leinart to fill the void. After all, the former USC Heisman winner and first-round pick was 7-10 as an NFL starter and suffered more from rust than failure in the first five-plus seasons of his pro career. But now, with Leinart gone too, the Texans' playoffs hopes seemingly rest on Yates, a rookie fifth-round selection who threw his first regular-season pass on Sunday, and Clemens, who has knocked around the league since last getting much starting experience in 2007, for the Jets.
Even with Houston's tough games against Atlanta and at Cincinnati just ahead on the schedule, I expect the Texans to hold on and outlast Tennessee in the division chase, even though the Titans improved to 6-5 and stayed two games behind Houston with a must home win against Tampa Bay on Sunday. After all, the Texans finish the regular season with a home game against the 3-8 Panthers, at the winless Colts and home against Tennessee. Houston should do no worse than 10-6 with that schedule, and that would force the Titans to virtually run the table to beat the Texans.
It won't happen. But neither will a Super Bowl run in Houston this season. Not now. Not with the double whammy of both quarterbacking Matts sidelined by bad breaks in the span of two weeks. The Texans will experience the playoffs for the first time in their 10th season of existence, but I expect it'll be a short and somewhat bittersweet taste.
Try to enjoy it anyway, Texans fans. As you well know, an early playoff exit is a far better alternative than no postseason at all. Though the promise of 2011 is dwindling rapidly, the last five games of this season will in essence be your playoff run. Might as well make the most of it. In Houston this year, great expectations will have to wait.
• Did you see that postgame shot of a smiling and clapping John Elway after the latest Tim Tebow-orchestrated Broncos victory? Denver's executive VP of football operations made sure he flashed his pearly whites and looked sufficiently enthusiastic this time, after taking grief that he didn't seem happy enough for his starting quarterback following Tebow's game-winning touchdown in Week 11 against the visiting Jets.
What more can you say about Tebow and the Broncos other than it has to be a fun ride they're on, winning four in a row and five out of six after a 1-4 start under Kyle Orton? The Broncos are 6-5 and remain just a game behind Oakland (7-4) in the AFC West, as well as a game off the pace in the AFC wild-card race.
Tebow produced 210 yards passing (9 of 18 for 143 yards, one touchdown) and rushing (67 on 22 carries) in the 16-13 win at San Diego, and it was his second road overtime victory and fourth road win overall since he ascended to No. 1 in Denver. The past three of those have come against the Broncos' three division opponents: at Oakland, at Kansas City and at San Diego.
Week 17 might be fun. The Broncos play at home against Kansas City, and maybe a playoff berth will be on the line for Denver when the Chiefs come to town, perhaps with Orton as their starting quarterback. It's a remarkable story that's unfolding in Denver, and it just keeps getting better by the week.
• Well, we found out Caleb Hanie is no Jay Cutler, but he did manage to keep the Bears competitive in their 25-20 loss at Oakland. Hanie finished 18 of 36 for 254 yards, with a pair of touchdowns and three interceptions. It was a mixed bag of a showing to be sure, and his bizarre intentional grounding penalty on the final play of the game was costly (he went to spike the ball to stop the clock, but hesitated, pump faked, and then spiked it, belatedly).
This much is clear: Hanie and Bears receiver Johnny Knox have a great rapport in the passing game, owing to how much Knox worked with Hanie on the second team in the preseason, when coordinator Mike Martz had receiver Roy Williams running with the first team before Williams deserved the designation.
Knox was the star of the game for the Bears, rolling up 145 yards receiving on just four catches. Knox scored Chicago's first touchdown on a 29-yard grab in the first quarter and later added an 81-yard nonscoring reception.
• Remember all those obituaries that were written on behalf of the Patriots about three weeks ago, after they fell to 5-3 on the strength of back to back losses to the Steelers and the Giants? Never mind.
New England fell behind Philly 10-0 on Sunday, then blew the doors off the Eagles, scoring 38 of the game's final 48 points. The Patriots are suddenly a very strong-looking 8-3, will be favored in all five of their remaining games and seem a great bet to cruise to one of the AFC's top two seeds, if not the No. 1 slot.
New England is a tough, resilient bunch, and it has seen it all by now and isn't scared easily. The Patriots may not make it all the way to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis this season, but in an AFC that looks devoid of greatness, I like their chances as much anyone's.
• Yates became the seventh rookie quarterback to play in the league this season, but you have to start to wonder if Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert might be better served by having a seat for a while? The Jaguars yanked him in favor of veteran Luke McCown in the fourth quarter of the loss to Houston, and it looked like a mercy benching.
Gabbert was 13 of 29 for 136 yards and just one interception, but those stats don't indicate how many easy throws he's still missing, and how his lack of comfort in the pocket continues to trend the wrong way. If anything, Gabbert has looked more lost the more he has played this season, and it seems like his rookie year has definitely reached the hit-the-wall phase.
• The Jets clearly don't believe in making things easy on themselves, but that was a virtual AFC wild-card race elimination game they captured at home against Buffalo on Sunday. New York's alive at 6-5, and the Bills, losers of four in a row, are going to be universally pronounced done at 5-6.
Mark Sanchez was the big winner in this one because his four touchdown passes made the difference for the Jets, even though his 17 of 35, 180-yard passing day seemed very average to the naked eye. Sanchez produced in the fourth quarter, when the game was hanging in the balance, and that'll keep head coach Rex Ryan fully in his corner for the time being.
Sanchez threw one ghastly interception and had a second one dropped by a Bills defender. He heard plenty of boos from the Jets' frustrated fans, and he gave both his supporters and detractors some material to work with against Buffalo. But New York won and No. 6 had a lot to do with it. That'll at least staunch the bleeding for now, with the Jets facing another must-have winnable game next week at Washington.
• Where to begin with dissecting the day turned in by Bills receiver Stevie Johnson? He got his hands on two potential game-winning touchdown catches on Buffalo's frantic final drive, coming away with neither, and those weren't even his signature moments from Sunday.
In a spectacular display of bad taste, Johnson, in the second quarter, celebrated his 5-yard touchdown catch by pretending to shoot himself in the thigh, a'la Jets receiver Plaxico Burress in that Manhattan nightclub in November 2008. And he wasn't even through with that move before he segued into the Jets' flying/wing-flapping TD dance favored by New York receiver Santonio Holmes. Johnson as the Jet then "crashed'' into the end zone, shrewdly drawing a 15-yard excessive celebration penalty for going to the ground.
The Jets used the improved field position on the ensuing kickoff, which Bills substitute kicker Dave Rayner inadvertently dribbled off the tee, to set up a short touchdown drive to re-tie the game, at 14-14.
Nice work, Stevie. Hope he doesn't blame God for his latest brain cramp.
• Andy Reid and Norv Turner. Two peas in a pod. I don't know how either one of them makes a strong case that they deserve another season in their gigs after this year's monumental failures in Philadelphia and San Diego, respectively. The Eagles and Chargers lost again at home on Sunday, and I can't remember when 4-7 ever stunk quite so badly.
• A trip to Indianapolis can cure just about anything that ails you in the NFL these days, but give it up for the Panthers, who snapped their 11-game road losing streak by staving off the winless Colts 27-19 at Lucas Oil Stadium. Carolina last won a game away from home in Week 16 of 2009, at the Giants.
The Panthers got another rushing touchdown from rookie quarterback Cam Newton, who now has 10 this season. That's just two shy of the NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (12), set by veteran Steve Grogan of New England in 1976. Newton hasn't topped 300 yards passing since Week 4 at Chicago, but he had another solid game, going 20 of 27 for 208 yards, without an interception or a touchdown pass.
• The Colts continued their march to infamy and are now 0-11, but at least receiver Reggie Wayne looked like his old self for one of the few times this season. Maybe the induction of Marvin Harrison into the team's Ring of Honor at halftime motivated Wayne, but his five catches for 122 yards and a touchdown (56 yards in the fourth quarter) at least gave Colts fans a whiff of that old Indy big-play offense.
Indianapolis isn't winning the next two weeks, at New England and at Baltimore, so 0-13 looks like a lock heading into Week 15 at home against Tennessee. With a home game against Houston in Week 16, and a trip to Jacksonville in Week 17, the Colts are definitely within reach of 0-16, and they know it. Wasn't it just the other day we were asking Indy head coach Jim Caldwell if the 13-0 Colts would rest their starters?
• With his ridiculously weak act on Thanksgiving, both on the field and from the postgame podium, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh just let the perception of him as a dirty player get hardened into reality, and he has no one to blame but himself for what comes next. The NFL has to suspend Suh for a game or two, because it's pretty clear that nothing else will serve as the wake-up call he so desperately needs.
Suh is a special talent and an intelligent young man, so it's baffling to hear him talking about how he knows all eyes are on him and yet he continues to sound as if he's in denial about the consequences of his own actions. That tells me somebody in Detroit has enabled him in that attitude, and I think you have to look in the direction of Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, who is starting to be known a little too much as well for letting his game-day emotions get the best of him. If the head coach isn't in control of himself, what message do you think that sends his players?
I get it that when Schwartz took over the Lions almost three years, they were the NFL's perennial weaklings, and a dose of fiery attitude and energy was much-needed throughout the franchise to eradicate the stench of 2008's 0-16 mark. But it's as if the pendulum has now swung too far the other way, with the Lions taking their bad-boy act to extremes at times, damaging Detroit's reputation, and in this case, its playoff chances.
The Lions need to make sure that loss to Green Bay represents their nadir in terms of how they conduct themselves for the rest of this season, because you can bet all eyes will be on them now. Detroit looked like an immature team against the Packers, with all the penalties, outbursts and sideline theatrics. The big-game setting looked too big for Schwartz's team, as if it couldn't handle the pressure and the buildup of playing the defending Super Bowl champs on that particular stage. It's up to Suh, and the Lions themselves, where they go from here.
• We haven't heard the Cowboys called a tough-minded team much in recent seasons, but that's the emerging trait I see from Jason Garrett's 7-4 team, which has now won four in a row. Dallas doesn't fall apart any more if its "A'' game isn't there from the start, and that resilience and ability to hang around was on display in the 20-19 win over red-hot Miami on Thanksgiving.
Credit to Dallas quarterback Tony Romo for bouncing back after those two early interceptions, giving his team a chance to win on a day when the offense wasn't rolling. There was a time not too long ago when Romo wouldn't have finished strong after starting a game poorly. From bad to worse was usually the arc that he and his Cowboys followed within a game. But no more.
• With both the Lions and Bears losing this week, the NFC North all but officially belongs to Green Bay. The unbeaten Packers (11-0) own a four-game lead over Chicago and Detroit (both 7-4) with five weeks remaining, and Green Bay still has its home games left against the Bears and Lions in Weeks 16-17. Only the drama of a perfect season, and there's plenty of it, remains for the defending Super Bowl champs.
• The Ravens have certainly had their letdowns on the road this season (see at Tennessee, at Jacksonville and at Seattle), but Baltimore has really established a dominating homefield advantage this season. The Ravens' 16-6 win over San Francisco made them 6-0 this season at home, and they've won 15 of their past 16 at M&T Bank Stadium.
If the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through Baltimore, the rest of the conference could be in trouble. We've seen what John Harbaugh's Ravens can do on the road in the playoffs, but they desperately want the AFC North title and the conference's top seed this season because they are fully aware how much their home turf means to their Super Bowl chances.
• You have to wonder where bottom is for Steve Spagnuolo and his 2-9 Rams, now that they've lost at home in consecutive weeks to Seattle and Arizona -- the two teams in the NFC West they could possibly hope to compete with this season -- and given up a franchise-record 228 yards rushing to Cardinals running back Beanie Wells in a 23-20 loss on Sunday.
St. Louis got a surprise 88-yard punt return from newly signed ex-Raider Nick Miller and still couldn't manage to beat a 4-7 Cardinals team that's getting very shaky quarterbacking from second-year man John Skelton (five interceptions without a touchdown pass in the past two games).
The Rams are a mess, and it would now register as something of a shock if Spagnuolo manages to survive this disaster of a season and return for a fourth year in St. Louis. Spagnuolo is greatly respected around the league and may well someday be a successful head coach, but his Rams are now 10-33 in his tenure and that's almost indefensibly bad.
• And speaking of things you can't defend, the Rams inexplicably elected once again to punt in the direction of Cardinals rookie cornerback/return man Patrick Peterson, who beat them three weeks ago with a league record 99-yard punt return in overtime at Arizona.
Peterson on Sunday settled for a mere 80-yard punt return touchdown, giving him a league-record-tying four this season, in just 11 games. I know Peterson is more of a cornerback than Devin Hester ever was when he entered the league as a second-round pick from the University of Miami in 2006, but could it be that Peterson's real mark in the NFL will be made as a return man, a'la Hester?
And maybe we shouldn't just assume Hester will be the most prolific return man of alltime before he's done. At the pace he's on now in the punt return game, Peterson is good for a touchdown about every three games.
• That was a do-or-die win for the Titans at home against Tampa Bay, and for at least one game this season, you can't fault Tennessee running back Chris Johnson for his underachieving ways. C.J. was his very familiar playmaking self against the Swiss cheese the Bucs put out there on run defense, shredding Tampa Bay for 190 yards on 23 carries, with a season-long gain of 34.
• And if you squinted, you could almost make out the faint outline of the Titans' "Music City Miracle'' of the 1999 playoffs in that 84-yard Tommie Campbell kickoff return touchdown against the Bucs. Using a little trickeration, the Titans had Marc Mariani field the first-quarter kickoff, then hand off to a streaking Campbell on a reverse after just 16 yards. The rookie defensive back took it the rest of the way for Tennessee's first touchdown and a 7-3 Titans lead.
• Whatever happened to Josh Freeman's fourth-quarter magic? It hasn't been in evidence at any point during Tampa Bay's current, season-killing five-game losing streak. Freeman threw a terrible interception with 2:19 to go against the Titans, and also fumbled the snap on a 4th-and-1 with less than a minute to play, effectively ending the Bucs' last-gasp hopes in Nashville.
• With that gutsy 23-20 win at home against Cleveland, the Bengals proved they're not going away. A.J. Green and Andy Dalton continue to impress, with the rookie receiver-quarterback tandem hooking up on the 51-yard completion that turned the game inside of the final minute. The only time Cincinnati led all day was in the last 38 seconds of action.
The Bengals (7-4) have to head back into the heavyweight division of the AFC North next week at Pittsburgh, but I still believe there's a pretty good chance the Ravens, Steelers and Cincinnati all make the playoffs this season.
• The best throw I saw all day came from Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder, who hit Percy Harvin between the numbers on a 39-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-13 in the fourth quarter. It was a perfect strike, and even though Harvin was somehow being well-covered by Falcons inside linebacker Curtis Lofton on the play, the Vikings quarterback put it where only Harvin could make the play.
Harvin had quite the day in Minnesota's 24-14 loss at Atlanta, adding a 104-yard non-scoring kickoff return (wonder if that's ever happened before?) later in the fourth quarter and totaling 210 all-purpose yards in the game. The Vikings needed every one of those, and then some, with running back Adrian Peterson out with an ankle injury.