Ecstasy, agony of streaks over for Packers, Colts; more Snaps
DENVER -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight in a Week 15 that fairly well turned things upside down in an NFL that officially just stopped making sense, at least for a day....
• This is why perfection, in any form, is so rarely accomplished and almost ridiculous to contemplate in the NFL. The 13-0 Green Bay Packers lost Sunday at Kansas City, and the 0-13 Indianapolis Colts won at home against the playoff-contending Tennessee Titans. And thus, there remains only one 16-0 team in NFL regular season history (2007 Patriots) and one 0-16 team in league regular season history (2008 Lions).
Of course the Chiefs and Colts rose up on what turned out to be Any Given Sunday in the NFL. Why did we ever presume the story would turn out differently? Kansas City fired its head coach last Monday, and the Colts may be the next team to make a change at the top. But no matter. Bad teams beat good teams every year, sometimes every week, in the NFL, even if there's a ton of history on the line.
For the Packers, it was a stunning end to their 19-game winning streak, and their first loss in exactly one year, since falling in Week 15 of last season at New England. But make no mistake, there was nothing cheap, flukey or fortunate about the Chiefs' 19-14 win. They dominated the defending Super Bowl champs in every facet of the game, and easily could have won in a rout if their red zone offense had not been forced to settle for so many chip-shot Ryan Succop field goals. Kansas City at one point had run 10 plays inside the Packers' 5-yard line, and yet had only three Succop gimmes to show for it. The Chiefs held the ball for more than 36 minutes, gained 438 yards on offense, and punted only twice.
So there will be no 19-0 Super Bowl champion again this season, and the '72 Dolphins of 17-0 fame are giddily popping champagne corks once again (I wonder if the South Florida Fish had even prepared for such a likelihood on Sunday, given the Chiefs posed almost zero offensive threat lately, scoring just four touchdowns in a seven-game span). The Packers looked invincible prior to Sunday, but resting their starters is no longer an issue that must be navigated in the season's final two weeks. There's still work to be done in Green Bay, which needs another win or a 49ers loss to clinch the NFC's top seed and homefield advantage.
The Packers' loss gives hope to the rest of the league's potential playoff field. As it turns out, you can beat Green Bay if you pressure Rodgers consistently, hit him often enough, and make him play tentatively in the pocket. Just like any other NFL quarterback. The Chiefs sacked Rodgers four times (three by outside linebacker Tamba Hali) and that doesn't even begin to tell the story of how effective and relentless their pass rush was against Green Bay.
For the Packers, their shaky offensive line play just became concern No. 1 as they look ahead to the playoffs. Green Bay's offensive line hasn't exactly been the Great Wall of China even in the best of times, but it got overran by the aggressive Chiefs, who at times beat the Packers with just a three-man rush.
Even worse for Green Bay, its line is now banged up at the wrong time of the year. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga left the game in the first half with a knee injury, and his replacement, rookie Derek Sherrod, the team's 2011 first-round pick, broke his leg in the third quarter. That required right guard T.J. Lang to shift over to right tackle, leaving only right guard Josh Sitton and center Scott Wells in the slots they began this season in.
Green Bay should remain the overwhelming NFC favorite heading into the postseason, but the Packers suddenly look vulnerable in ways they haven't all season. The loss of injured receiver Greg Jennings (knee) to the passing game was noticeable, with Rodgers completing just 17 of 35 passes (his first sub-50 percent completion showing of the season) for 235 yards, a mere 59 of those in the first half when Kansas City held a 6-0 lead. Green Bay's other pass-catchers did not pick up the slack, dropping at least five or six of Rodgers' throws.
Then again, the Packers were bound to have a game like this at some point. No one ever said perfection would be easy, and finally for Green Bay, Any Given Sunday at last arrived.
• The Colts deftly side-stepped infamy at home against the Titans, and that's an early Christmas present for an entire Indianapolis organization that has been the butt of jokes for months now. The Colts hadn't even held a lead since blowing a 24-7 advantage at home against the Chiefs in Week 5, so in some ways them beating Tennessee 27-13 was even more unexpected than Green Bay's loss.
Indy didn't really win the statistical battle with Tennessee, but who cares? The ball finally bounced right for the Colts, who won despite quarterback Dan Orlovsky throwing for just 82 yards on 11 of 17 passing. Orlovsky, by the way, is going to savor this one: It was his first victory in 10 career NFL starts, and he's been in the league since being drafted by Detroit in 2005 out of Connecticut.
Getting rid of the goose egg has to help Colts head coach Jim Caldwell's job prospects, but I by no means think he's safe at 1-13. It's still a hard sell to bring him back after the Colts were so wholly non-competitive for most of the past 10 weeks or so.
• On the other hand, you have to think Chiefs interim head coach Romeo Crennel just helped himself tremendously with the upset of the Packers. Crennel had his team supremely ready to play the hottest and most feared club in the NFL, and the win had to re-invigorate a Kansas City organization that has endured a series of depressing and disturbing events this season.
The Chiefs at 6-8 are even still on the fringes of the AFC wild-card race, and have a winnable home game against Oakland next Sunday (they won at the Raiders in Week 7). If Kansas City can finish the season strong, with a renewed sense of direction and momentum, it would be difficult for Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli to overlook Crennel when it comes to the coaching search. Players respect Crennel, and for one week at least, that admiration for the man translated into production on the field.
• One of the best stories in Week 15, the week that Tebowmania took center stage league-wide, was the return to prominence of Kyle Orton, the all-but-forgotten ex-Broncos quarterback who lost his job in Denver to Tebow.
Orton got his moment in the sun Sunday against Green Bay, even if it came on a cold, breezy day at Arrowhead Stadium. He was superb against the Packers defense, which had next to no answer for him. Orton completed 23 of his 31 passes, for 299 yards, finding 10 different receivers in the process. What a difference a veteran quarterback can make for a team, especially a team that just suffered through weeks of Tyler Palko under center.
If Orton continues to play well as the season comes to a close, there will be those in Kansas City who raise the question of whether the Chiefs should invest in his future, or turn back to injured starter Matt Cassel in 2012?
• One last Chiefs observation: I'd give way more than a penny for Todd Haley's thoughts while watching his former team manhandle Green Bay. Crennel's instant results as an interim head coach will serve to make Haley appear to have been the problem in Kansas City, even if he wasn't.
• I suppose the Texans were due a letdown performance after clinching a playoff spot for the first time in franchise history, but they really didn't show up at home against Carolina, falling behind 21-0 at halftime en route to a 28-13 loss.
The defeat at the hands of the 5-9 Panthers damaged Houston's chances of earning a first-round bye in the AFC, and that means everything for the Texans, because I still can't see them going on the road and turning into a real factor in the playoffs. Home games were essential in Houston.
The loss was also a sobering development in that the Texans' top-ranked defense looked anything but dominating with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips still recuperating from surgery on his kidney and gall bladder last week.
• At least we were able to reliably count on the Saints to look like the Saints on this confusing NFL Sunday. New Orleans started a bit slowly in Minneapolis, but then blew the doors off the Vikings, with quarterback Drew Brees throwing for five touchdown passes and 412 yards. It was the Saints' sixth consecutive win, and left Brees just a scant 304 yards shy of breaking Dan Marino's 1984 single-season passing yardage record of 5,084. With two games remaining, I like his chances to own the mark at some point in the second half of Week 16's Atlanta at New Orleans Monday night showdown at the Superdome.
That's two notable road wins in a row for the Saints, following up on last week's victory at Tennessee. With Green Bay's loss at Kansas City, and the 49ers dropping two of their past three games, the Saints are suddenly the NFC's hottest team.
• If the regular season lasted 18 weeks instead of 17, I think I'd like the Seattle Seahawks' chances to make the NFC playoffs. As is, Seattle has rallied to the .500 mark at 7-7 after that putrid 2-6 start, winning five of its past six games. And their only loss in that span was an upset at home to Washington, which trailed by 10 points in the fourth quarter.
The Seahawks took the reeling Bears apart at Soldier Field on Sunday, winning a little revenge for playoff losses in Chicago in both 2006 and 2010. Seattle has a great winning formula right now, with that Marshawn Lynch-led running game (he has scored a touchdown in 10 straight games) and a young and improving defense that seems to get better every week.
Seattle's best hope is for Detroit to fall apart, which took a hit when the Lions beat the Raiders Sunday. But if the Seahawks get in at 9-7, they're going to be a dangerous team that no one covets the chance to face. Kind of like they were last year as a 7-9 NFC West champion.
• Remarkably, the NFL streaked in Week 15 with a whopping nine teams having posted either a winning streak of at least five games, or a losing streak of five games. That's more than a fourth of the league being on a roll of some kind, for better or worse.
But then the Packers lost (after 13 wins), the Colts won (after 13 losses), the Texans lost (after seven wins) and the Broncos lost (after six wins).
The other teams that are still streaking? New Orleans prevailed at Minnesota and the Patriots beat Denver, meaning both have won six straight. The Bucs (eight games), Vikings (six games) and Bills (seven games) all kept losing in Week 15.
And here's another oddity from Week 15: Road teams positively ruled in the day's eight early games, winning six of those. But the two that didn't fit the trend were doozies: The Chiefs defended their home turf by knocking off the Packers, and the Colts at long last got a W, beating visiting Tennessee and bringing at least a little happiness to Lucas Oil Stadium this year.
• The Jekyll-and-Hyde Giants are at it again, winning when you expect a loss and losing when you expect a win. If New York does miss the playoffs this season, it can look no further than its inability to beat the last-place Redskins, who swept the Giants in convincing fashion this season, winning by 14 points at home in Week 1 and by 13 points on the road on Sunday.
I know the Giants could still win the NFC East if they win their final two games, against the Jets next week and the visiting Cowboys in Week 17, but so what? Do they really deserve a postseason berth after losing five of their past six, to fall to 7-7? And would they really scare anyone in the playoffs if they get there?
• So Giants at Jets next week at MetLife Stadium should be fun. Two desperate teams, having lost their way more than once this season, and the good news is that somebody has to win. It is possible that both New York teams, with such big playoff dreams not long ago, could both find a way to miss out on the festivities in January? That would no doubt cost the Giants coach Tom Coughlin his job, and would at least temporarily temper the bravado of Jets head coach Rex Ryan this offseason.
• As well as the Cowboys played at Tampa Bay, Dallas still doesn't have a sizable margin of error in the NFC East playoff chase. The Cowboys have to win at home against Philadelphia next week, and hope the Giants lose to the Jets at MetLife Stadium in order to make Week 17 meaningless. Otherwise, Dallas would still miss the playoffs if it didn't go on the road and beat the Giants in the final week of the regular season in New Jersey.
Which is why those back-to-back fourth-quarter meltdowns against Arizona and the Giants in Weeks 13-14 could still produce the epitaph of this season's wasted opportunity in Dallas.
• This is the sorry state of affairs in Tampa Bay: Bucs head coach Raheem Morris is encouraged when his team doesn't quit at home in the second half of what eventually became a 16-point loss to Dallas. Morris might want to raise his bar of expectation just a bit in the future. At one point Saturday night, the Cowboys led Tampa Bay in first downs 23-1, and Dallas held a comfortable halftime lead of 28-0. The Bucs didn't embarrass themselves with their second-half effort, but they didn't distinguish themselves either.
• Little matters this season in Atlanta except Matt Ryan and Mike Smith finally getting a playoff win in year four of their Falcons tenures, but credit to Atlanta (9-5) for rebounding after a rough 2-3 start, clinching a fourth consecutive winning season with that rout of Jacksonville on Thursday night. The Falcons went four decades-plus of their franchise history without being able to string together consecutive winning seasons, so four in a row is no small feat.
And another feat within reach in Atlanta: Back-to-back playoff berths for the first time ever. One more win should wrap up an NFC wild-card berth for the Falcons, and that Week 17 home game against Tampa Bay looks like a lay-up. Atlanta has gone 7-2 since its Week 5 home loss to Green Bay.
• It took until December, but Atlanta's offense is finally working as planned the past two weeks, with both Roddy White and Julio Jones coming up big in the receiving game, and Ryan throwing seven touchdowns without a pick in the wins over the Panthers and Jaguars.
I still think the Falcons will have a tough time winning on the road as an NFC wild-card team, but it's clear that Atlanta is playing its best ball of the year at the perfect time.
• Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, and now Johnny Knox is knocked out of the Bears lineup due to injury. Throw in the blowout loss at home to the resurgent Seahawks, the virtual death of the Bears' playoff hopes at 7-7, and the Sam Hurd saga, and this has been one very bad week in Chicago.