ARLINGTON, Texas -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from an eye-opening Week 15 in the NFL. ...
• It took until Week 15 of this most unique of seasons in South Florida, but it's finally time to swoon over Miami. You have to give it up for the Dolphins, who just proved the New England Patriots aren't the only tough-minded and resilient team to reside in the AFC East.
Has any club faced and overcome a greater challenge in 2013 than the one that beset the Dolphins since midseason? Every team, every year has its share of injuries and issues to deal with, but Miami's were in a different stratosphere of the advanced melodrama category. The Dolphins simply weren't supposed to have a playoff trip to plan for in the wake of the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito saga, the unseemly story that rocked the NFL for weeks on end. That was supposed to be the undeniable death blow to their postseason dreams.
But a funny thing happened on the way to disaster. The Dolphins refused to fall apart like they were supposed to. Thanks to Miami beating the visiting New England Patriots 24-20 on a sunny Sunday at Sun Life Stadium -- snapping its seven-game losing streak against the Beast from the AFC East -- the Dolphins took a huge step toward making something special out of a season that once looked to be doomed and in disarray.
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It was the biggest win in at least five years for Miami, which improved to 8-6 and for the time moved ahead of Baltimore (7-6) in the race for the AFC's No. 6 seed. The Dolphins' victory ratchets up the pressure considerably on the defending Super Bowl champions, who now must win Monday night at Detroit (7-6) to leapfrog Miami and regain their wild-card slot. It'll be no easy task, with the Lions 4-2 at home this season and the Ravens a dismal 1-5 on the road.
The Dolphins can't start printing playoff tickets just yet, because they still face a trip to wintry Buffalo (5-9) next week and then their regular-season finale at home against the unpredictable Jets (6-8). But Miami is suddenly in very good shape to secure its first winning season and playoff trip since 2008, and who among us saw that coming when the Dolphins were 3-4, on a four-game losing streak, and had just seen Martin, a starting offensive tackle, bolt the team because of alleged bullying in the locker room?
Out of the ruins of that debacle came Miami's unlikely resurgence. The Dolphins are 5-2 since the Martin story exploded, and Sunday gave them a season best-tying three-game winning streak, matching their 3-0 getaway in September. It wasn't that long ago that Miami head coach Joe Philbin was thought to be in danger of losing his job over the Martin-Incognito scandal. Instead, Philbin might now win some support for Coach of the Year. That (N)ot (F)or (L)ong stuff in the NFL cuts both ways, you know. You can seemingly rescue a reputation almost as quickly as you can ruin one these days.
The heroes were plentiful for the Dolphins against the first-place Patriots (10-4), but it was a win built on a signature performance by Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who cooly completed 25-of-37 passes for 312 yards and three scores, despite absorbing four sacks. Tannehill led Miami back from a 20-17 fourth-quarter deficit, finding running back Marcus Thigpen from 14 yards out with 1:15 remaining to give the Dolphins their winning margin.
But you can't overlook Miami's defense either, which refused to buckle and allow the Patriots and Tom Brady a remarkable sixth fourth-quarter comeback victory of the season. New England was knocking on the door of the Dolphins' end zone as the game wound down, but newly signed safety Michael Thomas (a member of the 49ers practice squad until last week) went from being a no-name to the star of the game when he knocked the ball out of receiver Danny Amendola's hands in the end zone, and later picked off Brady in the end zone with two seconds remaining to seal the win.
Who needs Martin or Incognito in Miami? Both players almost certainly have played their last snap with the Dolphins, and Philbin's team has survived and prospered without them. Not that it was easy. But the results are undeniable. There's still some work to be done in Miami, but the Dolphins have already proven something to the rest of the NFL. What does not kill you can indeed make you stronger -- and perhaps even earn you the most unexpected ticket to the NFL playoffs in the process.
• Taking nothing away from the Dolphins' win, it was readily apparent how much New England missed the injured Rob Gronkowski, especially in the red zone. The Patriots had three red zone possessions that didn't produce touchdowns, and on their final unsuccessful drive, they lacked any receiving target tall enough or big enough to out-fight Miami's defensive backs for the ball or positioning.
Tom Brady threw for a fat 364 yards against Miami, 270 of which went to his twin go-to targets Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola (23 catches combined), so it's not as if there are no weapons left in the New England arsenal. But it's difficult to replace Gronkowski's unique skillset, and if the Patriots can't go into Miami and win, it becomes even more difficult to envision them going into Denver and winning without Gronk in the postseason.
• Speaking of the Broncos, they didn't have to sweat losing control of the AFC's top seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs for even 72 hours thanks to New England's loss to the Dolphins. Stay calm and carry on, Peyton.
• For some folks, some of whom I even know and live near these days, Philadelphia's stunning 48-30 loss to the previously 3-9-1 Vikings -- playing without their best player in injured running back Adrian Peterson -- can be explained simply: Sports Illustrated put the Eagles on the cover, and the Eagles naturally lost. End of story.
And you can't really refute those basic facts, whether you believe in the SI cover jinx or not. Philadelphia's NFL-high five-game winning streak was snapped in resounding fashion, with Minnesota scoring 24 points before its first punt, and Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel playing like Joe Montana in his prime. Cassel was 26-of-35 for 382 yards, with two scoring passes and a touchdown run against a defense that hadn't given up more than 21 points in a game since Week 4 at Denver.
SI Cover boy Nick Foles, the Eagles quarterback, didn't see his Cinderella story head for pumpkin-ville by any means, but he wasn't at his best either against the Vikings. Foles threw a bad jump-ball of a pick (only his second interception this season) inside the Vikings' 10-yard line, and also looked a little sluggish in his decision-making, taking four sacks. He did finish with 428 yards passing and three second-half touchdowns, but a lot of that damage was done when the Eagles were considerably behind and in catch-up mode.
Even in the wake of the Eagles' egg-laying in the Metrodome, Philadelphia can avoid a winner-take-all Week 17 NFC East showdown in Dallas. The Cowboys' (7-7) collapse against Green Bay put the Eagles in position to clinch the division next week with a win and a Dallas loss or tie. Barring that -- the Cowboys face the Redskins (3-11) next week in a 1 p.m. ET game -- Philly and Dallas will play for the East in Week 17 as the Eagles can't tie the Cowboys and win the division. The Eagles play the Bears (8-6) next Sunday night at home.
• Another win or two like the one they got Sunday against the Eagles, and the Vikings may not be in the market for a new head coach after all. Leslie Frazier is on everyone's coaching hot-seat list, but his club has continued to play hard for him, and were it not for Baltimore's remarkable last-second win at home last week, the Vikings would be 3-0-1 in their past four games. As is, they're 2-1-1, with that tie in Green Bay and victories over potential playoff clubs in Chicago and Philly.
How the Vikings finish the season (at Cincy, vs. Detroit) will impact Frazier's fate, league sources have told me, and Minnesota continues to be a tough out.
• And for what it's worth, it's pretty obvious by now that Minnesota should have been playing Matt Cassel all along this season. With neither Christian Ponder nor Josh Freeman expected to return to the Vikings in 2014, that makes Cassel the clear-cut favorite to enter the year as the team's starter -- maybe even if the Vikings draft a first-round quarterback and elect to groom him slowly for the No. 1 job.
I suppose the muddle Minnesota has made of its quarterback situation is a strike against retaining Frazier and his staff. But Cassel has played a smooth and consistent brand of quarterback almost every time he's been on the field this season, taking superb care of the football and keeping the chains moving. The Vikings could do a lot worse than running him out there 16 times in 2014.
Against the Eagles, Cassel completed his first eight passes, for 149 yards, and had 202 yards passing with a touchdown at halftime. Not bad for a team playing without its top two running backs, and relying on former practice-squad member Matt Asiata, who happened to score three touchdowns on the ground, from 1, 1 and 5 yards out.
• Chicago head coach Marc Trestman has a little more credibility in his locker room about now. Not to mention in the eyes of Bears fans and the media. That's one takeaway from Jay Cutler getting the job done in his return to the lineup after a month-long ankle injury. Chicago outlasted Cleveland 38-31 on the road, and Cutler overcame some early interception issues (twice being picked off by Browns safety Tashuan Gipson, including a pick-six) to get a much-needed W for the Bears.
Had Cutler imploded and Chicago lost, with backup Josh McCown having played so well in relief of Cutler this season, the winter chill would have gotten considerably more biting in the Windy City. But Cutler's 22-of-31, 265-yard, three-touchdown day proved the wisdom of Trestman's move back to the QB well enough. Especially since the Bears trailed 24-17 early in the fourth quarter, before rallying for three consecutive touchdown drives.
• Another week, another Alshon Jeffery highlight. The Bears' second-year receiver is reminding me of a young Randy Moss: You throw it up there, and some how he's going to come down with it.
Jeffery had the game-tying 45-yard touchdown reception between a pair of Browns defenders with just fewer than 11 minutes left in the game, and the score gives him four touchdowns in his past three games. When Jeffery gets his big hands on it, the ball has been secured. Definitively.
• Kirk Cousins' start for Washington at Atlanta was a mixed bag, but there was plenty to build on in his 381-yard, three-touchdown performance. Cousins threw a couple of interceptions and lost a fumble, but he wasn't alone on the turnover front, given Washington had a season-worst seven giveaways. The Falcons turned those seven turnovers into only 20 points, after coming into the game with just 12 takeaways all season.
Overall, Cousins looked pretty sharp in only his second career start, and his pocket passing skills are obviously more well-developed than those of Robert Griffin III. But I still don't think teams are going to be lining up to trade a first-round pick to Washington in exchange for its backup quarterback, no matter what embattled Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan suggested last week.
Washington's 27-26 loss to the Falcons, of course, turned on Shanahan's unconventional decision to go for two rather than kick the game-tying point-after in the game's final half-minute. The Redskins failed to convert when Cousins' pass was batted away in the end zone.
I don't have a problem with Shanahan's roll of the dice, any more than I did when Michigan coach Brady Hoke tried the same all-or-nothing maneuver against Ohio State last month. For teams with nothing to lose, why not try to win it on one play, rather than take your chances in overtime? But I'm guessing Shanahan's call will be viewed through the prism of his recent warfare with Washington owner Daniel Snyder and his likely departure from D.C. in a couple weeks. And that may leave Shanahan open to questions of whether he took his two-point chance in the mindset of a man who knows he's gone any day now.
He probably wanted to just get this week over with as soon as possible, one way or another.
• The other risky move of the day was the decision by Philadelphia head coach Chip Kelly to go for it on a 4th-and-1 from his own 24-yard line in the third quarter. The Eagles were stopped on the play by the Vikings, and I think even Kelly would admit that Sunday did not represent his best work on the sideline. I'm still not sure why Philadelphia, even facing a sizable deficit for most of the game, didn't get the ball to running back LeSean McCoy more.
A week after breaking the Eagles' single-game rushing record with 217 yards against Detroit in the snow, McCoy had just eight carries for 38 yards, with five catches for 68 yards. Is it possible Philly forgot about the NFL's leading rusher?
• Besides Washington's Robert Griffin III, I can think of another turnover-prone NFC East quarterback who might need to be shut down for his own good. Your move, Tom Coughlin. The Giants' Eli Manning threw another five interceptions in New York's 23-0 loss to visiting Seattle, giving him a league-leading 25 with two weeks to go. Manning threw for just 156 yards, with those five picks, three sacks and a 31.9 passer rating.
The Giants are the only team in the NFL this season to get shut out, and they've done it twice now, losing 38-0 at Carolina in Week 3.
• Just wondering, but do you think the Seahawks wrote "We'll be back'' on the walls of their locker room in MetLife Stadium? Between now and the Super Bowl in seven weeks, Seattle probably won't have to leave home. It finishes the regular season with two home games, and if it garners the NFC's No. 1 seed, it will have both playoff games at home. Then perhaps a return trip to the Meadowlands awaits.
Being home for the holidays is always a nice little treat for everyone.