Musings, observations and the occasional insight in a defining Week 16 in the NFL. ...
• Well that was easy. Why didn’t the Dallas Cowboys think of this before? With as much heartbreak as America’s Team (yeah, it’s OK to trot that one out again) has endured in Week 17 in recent years, how come they never just went ahead and wrapped up their playoff fate in Week 16, avoiding the entire do-or-die narrative? That plan worked out splendidly on Sunday, when the Cowboys crushed the visiting Colts 42-7 at AT&T Stadium, winning the NFC East in convincing fashion and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
This year, Week 17 won't torment Dallas or its legion of fans. Five times in the six seasons from 2008-13, the Cowboys entered the final week of the regular season facing a showdown with a divisional rival for the NFC East title. Four times they lost: to the Eagles in 2008 and '13, to the Giants in '11 and to Washington in '12. Their only victory in that pressure-packed situation came in 2009, against Philadelphia.
But there will be no such scenario unfolding in 2014, because at 11-4 Dallas has already won the East and can do no worse than securing the No. 3 seed in the NFC, playing host to a first-round playoff game. It’s possible, but extremely unlikely, that the Cowboys could overtake either Arizona or Seattle for the No. 2 seed, thereby earning a first-round bye and a divisional-round home game.
No matter. These Cowboys have already come so much further than anyone ever imagined. Remember, this was supposed to be one of the worst defenses in recent NFL memory, and a team that would have to score 40 points a game to win. Well, Dallas has won 11 games and just limited the Andrew Luck-led Colts to a measly seven points, and those came with 5:24 left in the fourth quarter, after the Cowboys led 42-0 and Luck had been lifted for his own safety.
It was the finest showing of the season for the no-name Dallas defense, and the Colts didn’t record a first down until the second quarter, with Luck throwing a pair of interceptions and Indy continually self-destructing with drops, penalties (eight) and three turnovers. The Cowboys nearly recorded their first shutout since the 2009 regular-season finale, when they beat the Eagles 24-0 to clinch their most recent playoff trip and division title.
But Dallas’ offense did its part this season, too, and the Cowboys have now scored at least 35 points in three consecutive games -- wins over Chicago, Philadelphia and Indy -- a streak the franchise last managed in 1983. This was also perhaps quarterback Tony Romo’s finest hour. The much-maligned Cowboys' veteran came through with an almost flawless 18-of-20 passing performance for 218 yards and four touchdowns, three of which came in the first half when Dallas was in the process of burying the Colts.
Often ridiculed for his lack of big-game poise and production, Romo was outstanding, throwing no interceptions and breaking a team-record with a 90 percent completion rate. With a 25-yard scoring toss to tight end and favorite target Jason Witten in the third quarter, Romo passed another more meaningful team mark: Troy Aikman’s 32,942 career passing yards. Romo pushed his career total to 32,971 yards, and he logged at least three passing touchdowns for the fifth time in six games. In short, he has stood tall and delivered when the Cowboys have needed him most in 2014, and no Romo-will-find-a-way-to-lose-it storyline has been reinforced this season.
Fittingly, this team was thought to be the Cowboys' least talented squad in a long time, and yet it has won and won big. After years of hearing how much talent their roster contained and then seeing season after season of underachievement and disappointment unfold in the Metroplex, the Cowboys flipped the script on us in 2014.
Maybe it was as simple as avoiding all that Week 17 drama all along. What a novel concept. The Cowboys still have a game to play next week, at Washington (4-11). But the stakes are low, and it might even be meaningless. I’m guessing Dallas and all you Cowboys fans could probably get used to that.
• So much for the Ravens winning one for the Kubber in Houston. Ex-Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, now the Ravens' offensive coordinator, didn’t exactly get an inspiring effort from his guys in his chance to exact revenge against the team that fired him 13 games into last season. No team in the AFC playoff hunt lost more ground on Sunday than Baltimore.
The Ravens (9-6) looked flatter than flat and fell to a Texans team starting a fourth-string quarterback in Case Keenum who wasn’t even on the team this time last week. It figures. Just when Baltimore was starting to be seen by many as the most complete team in the AFC North and potentially a dangerous club to contend with in the playoffs, the Ravens came up very, very small and now could miss the postseason altogether for the second year in a row.
To make it as a wild-card entry -- the Ravens can no longer win the division -- Baltimore has to beat visiting Cleveland next week, then hope the Chiefs (8-7) handle the Chargers (9-6) at Arrowhead Stadium. The Ravens lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Chargers, based on San Diego’s dramatic win in Baltimore in Week 13.
Well-paid Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco picked the worst possible time to have one of his worst games ever. Flacco tossed three interceptions in a game for the first time all season, and Houston turned those picks into 13 points, which accounted for the margin of Houston’s 25-13 win. Flacco entered with just one interception in his past five games, and his 21-of-50 passing day for 195 yards and two touchdowns included an anemic first-half showing of just three completions on 18 attempts for 27 yards and two picks.
• Maybe the Lions relaxed -- or even celebrated -- a little too much Saturday night when the Eagles surprisingly lost at Washington, clinching Detroit’s first playoff berth since 2011. While Jim Caldwell’s club survived at Chicago 20-14 on Sunday, that sloppy of a performance won’t get it done next week at Lambeau Field or in the NFC playoffs.
Detroit looked like the Lions of the Jim Schwartz era for most of a cold day at Soldier Field. Like when Matthew Stafford channeled his old careless self and threw two costly red-zone interceptions. Or when return man Jeremy Ross went brain dead and got indecisive in fielding a punt, letting it bounce off him at the Lions' 10-yard line, leading to a muff and an easy game-tying touchdown for Chicago just before the half.
The undisciplined play returned for Detroit, too, with center Dominic Raiola caught on camera deliberately stepping on the ankle of Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson. The play looked as dirty as they come, and given Raiola’s reputation for questionable tactics, he won’t get the benefit of the doubt. Defensive lineman Ziggy Ansah was also involved in a play that seemed sketchy, hitting a sliding Bears quarterback Jimmy Clausen helmet-to-helmet despite appearing to have enough time to adjust his aim. Clausen got up fighting mad, and the play drew a 15-yard penalty for the illegal blow.
The Lions deserve credit for being 11-4 and winning the second-most games in franchise history, but they don’t seem like a threat for more than a one-and-done playoff appearance in the deep NFC field. And with Detroit not having won on the road against the Packers since 1991 -- the year before Green Bay’s Brett Favre era began -- it’s a very long shot that the Lions will have anything other than a No. 6 seed and a trip to Dallas waiting for them in the playoffs.
• Not that the Packers should be mapping out their Super Bowl parade route at this point, either. Remember when Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the league’s leading MVP candidate, kept getting questions every week on how he was making it look so easy? That has not really been the issue the past two weeks in the Packers' loss at Buffalo and so-so win at Tampa Bay.
Rodgers said he was coming out of a recent bout with the flu on Sunday and also pulled a calf muscle in the first quarter. But while his stats were great -- 31-of-40 for 318 yards, with one touchdown and one fumble -- the Packers' offense just isn’t as explosive as it was earlier this season and still looks out of sync at times. In short, nothing is coming all that easily to Green Bay on offense.
Still, the Packers are a home win away from an undefeated 8-0 season at Lambeau, which would make them 12-4 and assure them of at least the NFC’s No. 2 seed. Green Bay fans probably were rooting for Arizona on Sunday night, because the Packers could handle going into the Cardinals' home stadium in the playoffs quite a bit better than what would now be a return to Seattle’s CenturyLink Field for the NFC title game if both teams make it that far.
• It’s almost a relief to see the Saints (6-9) put out of their misery at long last. What a train wreck of a season for the club I picked to win the Super Bowl in Glendale. Fittingly, it was the bitter division rival Falcons (6-9) who provided the bookends to New Orleans’ year of frustration, beating them in overtime in Atlanta in Week 1 -- after the Saints blew a fourth-quarter lead -- and eliminating them from playoff contention with a 30-14 rout in the Superdome on Sunday.
I would have put 10,000-to-1 odds on the Saints inexplicably losing their last five games of the season in the Superdome, where they once looked invincible. But it happened. And if you’re the Packers, the last visitor to lose in the Superdome this season, in Week 8, you’ve got to be wondering where that Saints team went.
Here’s another perfectly fitting summation to the Saints’ lost season: that Jimmy Graham touchdown-turned-giveaway on the goal line in the fourth quarter. So close and yet so far, just like New Orleans’ entire ride in 2014.
• So here’s my question about next week’s gargantuan Carolina at Atlanta win-or-go-home showdown for the NFC South division title: Does the losing coach get fired? Come to think of it, is there a chance even the winning coach might get canned, too? Not on Black Monday, the day after the game, mind you. But soon after his final game of the season, whenever that comes?
Laugh if you want, but how many weeks ago was it that we saw both Mike Smith and Ron Rivera on the list of coaches very likely to be gone? Not too many is the correct answer.
To recap, Carolina won exactly one game over the span of 11 weeks this season but will be playing for a second-consecutive NFC South title at the Georgia Dome. The Panthers won their first two games of the season and have won their past three, but in between, all they could manage was a Week 5 home win against the struggling Bears and a Week 6 tie at Cincinnati in that 1-8-1 stretch (which included their bye). The Panthers beat the reeling Browns 17-13 in Charlotte on Sunday, and it’s mind-boggling that their season still holds the promise of the playoffs, no matter how humbly they might enter them at 7-8-1 with a win over the Falcons.
And then there’s Atlanta. The Falcons are 6-9, and yet they’re one home win away from the playoffs. With their win at New Orleans, they’ve gone 5-0 in the worst division in NFL history and 1-9 against everyone else, beating only visiting Arizona in Week 13. Try wrapping your brain around that unprecedented route to a first-round home playoff game.
Seven wins is going to win the NFC South, just like it did when the Rams and Seahawks squared off in Seattle in Week 17 of 2010 for the NFC West crown. Let the hype begin.
• Kudos to Dolphins owner Stephen Ross for coming to the conclusion that makes the most sense in Miami: Even after missing out on the playoffs yet again, the Dolphins (8-7) are better off sticking with head coach Joe Philbin for a fourth season than firing him without knowing for certain they can land a candidate who represents an upgrade and builds on the foundation that Philbin has built in his first three years on the job.
Being stuck in status quo mode is maddening in the NFL, and coaches who can’t get their teams to take a significant step forward usually lose their jobs soon enough. But with a win next week at home against the 3-12 Jets, Miami will go 9-7 and secure its first winning season since 2008, and that is progress after last year’s 8-8 and '12’s 7-9 finish. It’s not much progress, but it’s just enough progress, and unless Ross knew he could lure someone like Jim Harbaugh to town -- and that was a long shot at best -- why not stick with Philbin and give him one last chance to push Miami back into the postseason?
When it comes to coaches who have some talent -- and I believe Philbin deserves membership in that club -- it’s better to be one year too late in firing them than one year too early. The Dolphins struggled once again this season with putting games away -- see the losses at home to Green Bay and on the road against Detroit and Denver -- but there is the making of something good in Miami, and having one more year of patience with Philbin might prove to be Ross’ wisest move yet.
• Even before the Sunday night game, in which Ryan Lindley got the nod for Arizona, three very inexperienced quarterbacks started in Week 16. Houston’s Case Keenum was solid and got the win in the 8-7 Texans’ upset of visiting Baltimore; Chicago’s Jimmy Clausen played very respectably in a loss to the 11-4 Lions; and Cleveland's Johnny Manziel had a second consecutive forgettable outing in the Browns’ 17-13 loss at Carolina, leaving the game in the second quarter with a hamstring injury after completing 3-of-8 passes for 32 yards.
Some in the Panthers crowd went low-class and booed the injured Manziel while he was down on the field, but if this was how his rookie season is to end in 2014, there won’t be much for Cleveland to go on in terms of being certain he’s the franchise’s quarterback of the future. Johnny, we hardly knew ye?
Of Manziel’s three drives against Carolina, he had two three-and-outs and a possession that netted a field goal. His six quarters of action as a starter have produced just seven first downs, and three of those came via penalty.
As always, Cleveland’s endless search for stability at the game’s most critical position continues. At least into 2015.
• It has only been three years since we last saw the Steelers in the playoffs -- a 2011 first-round overtime loss to those charmed Tim Tebow-led Broncos in Denver -- but it feels longer, because two seasons of missing the postseason in Pittsburgh is like seven years in most other NFL markets. Such is the level of expectation when you’re the only team in league history to own six Lombardi Trophies.
The Steelers (10-5) clinched at least a wild-card berth in toughing out a 20-12 win over visiting Kansas City on Sunday, and with that hurdle cleared, they can really position themselves to do some damage by winning at home against Cincinnati next week. Beating the Bengals (9-4-1), who host the Broncos on Monday night, will give Pittsburgh its first AFC North title since 2010 and a No. 3 or No. 4 seed, assuring the Steelers of at least one home playoff game.
It hasn’t been pretty at times in Pittsburgh this season, with home losses to the lowly Buccaneers and Saints, plus that egg-laying against the Jets in Week 10. But Mike Tomlin’s guys got the job done with their second three-game winning streak of the season, and the best might still be to come.
• Break up the Raiders. That’s three home wins in a row for a team that started this season a ghastly 0-10 and has gone 3-2 since with a shot to win four of its final six games if the Broncos have nothing to play for in terms playoff positioning next week in Denver.
Oakland bullied visiting Buffalo 26-24 on Sunday, rolling up more points against the Bills’ quality defense than anyone since the Patriots scored 37 against Buffalo in Week 6. The Raiders limited Buffalo to 321 yards of offense, with only 13 of those yards coming on the ground.
A coaching change is coming in Oakland, and probably a new general manager as well, but the new tandem will at least have some momentum to build on after this burst of late-season production by the Raiders. Oakland beat Kansas City, San Francisco and Buffalo in the past five weeks, hurting all three of those teams’ playoff chances.
With the loss, the Bills will miss the playoffs for an NFL-worst 15th season in a row and sit at 8-7 ahead of a challenging trip to Foxboro next week. And the beat goes on in Buffalo.
• The Patriots are happy they don’t have to see the Jets until 2015 and probably never again with head coach Rex Ryan on the sideline. New England had exactly two games this season that were decided by a field goal or less, and both came against the Jets: a 27-25 win in New England in Week 7, and Sunday’s 17-16 squeaker over the Jets in the Meadowlands.
"We’re the team that always gives him the biggest challenge, whether he admits it or not," Ryan said of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
I don’t think you’re getting an argument on that front from anyone wearing red, white and blue, Rex. The Jets (3-12) weren’t good this season, but they know how to make Brady and the rest of the Pats sweat.
• There’s still a shot for a remarkable bit of repetition this year: We could have as many as seven repeat division champions from 2013. New England, Indianapolis and Denver are already in the club, with Cincinnati, Green Bay, Carolina and Seattle all still alive in their division races entering Sunday night’s Seahawks-Cardinals showdown.
Only in the NFC East, where Dallas surprisingly unseated defending champion Philadelphia, has a new champion been crowned this season.
• With all that fight the Giants showed in beating the Rams 37-27 in St. Louis -- literally in the case of explosive rookie receiver Odell Beckham Jr. -- I’d be shocked if there’s really any thought of a coaching change in New York at this point. Tom Coughlin’s club has again rallied to his cause, posting the Giants’ second three-game winning streak of the season at a very opportune time. New York is at least a more hopeful 6-9 entering next week’s home finale against the reeling Eagles, and my bet is Coughlin is now assured of returning to Gotham for a 12th season, even if New York has missed the playoffs in five of the past six years.
• Looks like those recent reports foretelling a Jay Gruden-Robert Griffin III divorce jumped the gun by a healthy margin. It’s eminently clear both will return to D.C. in 2015, and I agree with Gruden: RGIII has showed me enough the past two weeks to think Washington is big enough for both of them to coexist and perhaps even thrive next season. Griffin has played with more confidence and less hesitancy against the Giants and Eagles, and his decision-making looked greatly improved from the shaky version of himself we saw earlier this season. I especially liked his touch on the deep balls to receiver DeSean Jackson (catches of 51 and 55 yards), although he went to the well once too often on that front and badly underthrew Jackson for a costly interception in the fourth quarter.
Washington desperately needs stability, and starting over at either head coach or quarterback next year would only set the forever-rebuilding franchise back another notch or two, if that’s even possible. Griffin’s performance (16-of-23 for 220 yards) in the 27-24 upset of the playoff-contending Eagles on Saturday was an encouraging step in the right direction in D.C., and the third-year quarterback has shown signs that his grasp of Gruden’s offense is growing by the week late in the season. Better late than never, for Washington’s sake.
• If DeSean Jackson could only face his old team every week, he’d be a first-ballot Hall of Famer some day. The ex-Eagles' receiver burns with the motivation of one who has been scorned, and he got plenty of revenge this season against Philadelphia, the team that unceremoniously and surprisingly released him this spring. Jackson did his part on Saturday to ruin the Eagles’ shriveling playoff chances, catching four passes for 126 yards and surpassing 1,000 yards receiving on the season. He abused Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher and exposed the still-shaky Philly secondary.
In Week 3 in Philadelphia, Jackson hung up five catches for 117 yards, including a long scoring pass from then-Washington starter Kirk Cousins. Nine catches for 243 yards and a touchdown, with three receptions in excess of 50 yards, but the Eagles didn’t need Jackson this year. Right.
Tell me again how it was strictly a football decision, Chip Kelly?
• Speaking of Kelly, maybe it really does matter who plays quarterback in his up-tempo, passer-friendly offense after all. Because Mark Sanchez just played his way out of contention to be the team’s long-term starter. Sanchez threw a game-losing interception to Washington cornerback Bashaud Breeland with 1:36 left in a 24-24 game, with the Eagles already at the edge of field goal range.
The more he played this season in Philly, the more Sanchez looked like the turnover-prone starter of his other green and white-clad employer, the Jets. He had two more turnovers on Saturday, and that gives Philadelphia quarterbacks a whopping 26 turnovers this season -- leading the league in a department you can’t afford to lead the league in. Washington turned those miscues into 10 points, and that was the difference between victory and defeat in a game the Eagles had to have.
Did we overestimate the potential of this Philadelphia team all along this season, or is this three-game season-killing losing streak warping our perspective because of its devastatingly bad timing? I tend to think the former. The Eagles did have a severe turnover problem all season (35 total giveaways), never got consistent quarterbacking from Nick Foles or Sanchez, and relied too heavily on an especially large number of big plays on special teams and defense (Philadelphia has a league-best 10 return touchdowns, while the rest of the NFL averages 2.8 per team).
That’s not a sustainable formula for victory, and in the end, the Eagles were not able to sustain it. At 9-3 on Thanksgiving, they looked ready to earn a first-round bye. But four days before Christmas, Kelly’s swooning team looks ready for the golf course and a long, agonizing offseason.
• As if the dismal end of the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco needed an exclamation point, Saturday night’s stunning 38-35 collapse against visiting San Diego provided the most fitting one imaginable. The offensively challenged 49ers once led 21-0 and were still completely in command at 28-7 midway through the third quarter, but they still found a way to lose to a Chargers team that scored 31 of the game’s final 38 points, winning on Nick Novak’s 40-yard field goal four minutes into overtime.
San Francisco somehow managed to kick the game away despite rushing for 355 yards, the most in the NFL by a losing team since at least 1940. It was San Francisco’s fourth consecutive loss, after the 49ers went almost four full years without so much as a three-game losing streak under Harbaugh. Going out with a whimper is not the way we thought it would end for a San Francisco team that has been, if nothing else, remarkably resilient under Harbaugh.
• Memo to the next 49ers' head coach, whoever that might be: Your No. 1 priority next season is to establish a legitimate home-field advantage, like the one San Francisco apparently abandoned when it left musty old Candlestick Park for this year’s new state-of-the-art digs in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
The 49ers are a dismal 3-4 at home this season, with a Week 17 date against 11-4 Arizona remaining, and this year marks the first time since 2008 that San Francisco won’t have a winning record at home. In the first three seasons of Harbaugh’s tenure, his 49ers went 7-1, 6-1-1 and 6-2 at Candlestick, not including a 2-1 mark in the postseason.
File this one under be careful what you wish for, San Francisco. All that glitters is not gold. Even if that is one of your team colors.
• Those plucky Chargers (9-6) might be doing it again in December. They won their final four games last season in improbable fashion to storm from 5-7 to 9-7 and grab the AFC’s No. 6 seed. And thanks to Saturday night's shootout win over San Francisco, they’re in position to earn the same exact slot this season with a win at Kansas City next Sunday.
San Diego needed to have Baltimore lose at Houston on Sunday to slide up and into the six-team AFC playoff field, and the Ravens complied, leaving Mike McCoy’s team very much alive despite what looked to be crushing back-to-back home losses to New England and Denver in Weeks 14-15.
As the 49ers found out the hard way, the Chargers are tough to ever completely kill off as long as Philip Rivers is in the game. Rivers refuses to recognize a lost cause when one presents itself, and even his three interceptions against San Francisco didn’t deter him. He simply regrouped and wound up throwing for four touchdowns and 356 yards, reportedly playing through a bulging disk in his back that may require offseason surgery to repair.
If you’re wondering, the Chargers lost at home to Kansas City in Week 7, but they don’t mind playing at Arrowhead Stadium one bit, having won five of their last seven games there, including both 2012 and '13.
• What a revelation Chargers rookie receiver Dontrelle Inman was against the 49ers Saturday night. Who needs the injured Keenan Allen? Inman, an undrafted free agent from the University of Virginia, took over the game late against a tired San Francisco defense and finished with the first seven catches of his NFL career, for 79 yards. None of those grabs were bigger than the 17-yarder he hauled in on fourth down with the season on the line during San Diego’s game-tying touchdown drive late in regulation.
Inman was as cool as the other side of the pillow when the Chargers needed him most, and his play was pivotal in offsetting the loss of Allen, who broke his collarbone in Week 15 against Denver and is out indefinitely.