Every Monday, SI.com's Ross Tucker will hand out letter grades to deserving NFL parties...
Minnesota Vikings Ball-Handling. The good news for the Vikings in the wake of their loss to the Atlanta Falcons is they may have the opportunity to secure a new endorsement partner: Butterfinger. On a day in which cold weather and precipitation were a significant factor from Seattle to New England, the team that had the biggest problems maintaining possession of the ball was a team playing in the comforts of its own dome.
And it wasn't just all the obvious turnovers that doomed the Vikings. Though the four fumbles were bad enough, there were three other times the Vikings put the ball on the turf and were fortunate enough to recover, including two in the final minutes by Adrian Peterson and Tarvaris Jackson, both of whom had already been culprits earlier in the game of back-breaking losses of possession. The Vikings played well enough to beat the Falcons, they just could not hold onto the ball, totaling seven fumbles in all.
Even when they were given a gift, a fumble on the goal line by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, the Vikings defenders were unable to corral the ball as it went right through Darren Sharper's hands and scooted by a pair of other Vikes before Falcons guard Justin Blalock emerged from the bottom of the pile with what proved to be a game-winning score. Nobody on the Vikings could get a firm grasp on the ball all day and they lost because of that alone. It wasn't a dominating performance by the Falcons or a woeful effort by Jackson passing, which most people thought would have to happen, that cost the Vikings. It was simply their inability to hold onto the football.
Jason Jones, Tennessee Titans. No Kyle Vanden Bosch. No Albert Haynesworth. No problem. The Titans were missing their two best defensive linemen by far yet they were still able to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers soundly to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs on the strength of their defensive front. The charge was led by a man with a nondescript name whose game is decidedly eye-catching. Jones, a rookie from Eastern Michigan, was an absolute force all day and finished his career day with 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
I spoke with Jones after the game on Sirius NFL Radio and he was quick to spread the wealth among the other young defensive linemen, saying that it was a "collective effort. One of the plays we called a 'game' (a stunt between cooperating defensive linemen) that we had worked on all week in practice and it worked."
Though Jones was extremely humble on the day he officially became a star, he admitted the assumption that the defensive line wouldn't be able to get the job done and would cause the Titans to fall to the Steelers bothered him and his linemates.
"The media put that on us. They said we wouldn't be able to perform with those guys out, but we talked about it all week in the defensive line room and knew there would be some opportunities available with those guys out, and we made the most of them," Jones said.
Jones used his versatility as a guy who can play both tackle and end to harass Ben Roethlisberger into a horrific day that saw him commit four turnovers and fumble the ball on two other plays. On the other side, steady-as-he-goes quarterback Kerry Collins turned in another solid performance, likely squelching the Vince Young chirping that had started in some circles after the Titans fell to the Texans one week ago.
Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals wanted to make a statement and prove to themselves and the rest of the league that they had what it takes to put forth a winning effort on the East Coast against a quality opponent. Consider that mission un-accomplished. The Cardinals made a statement all right, and that statement was they are nowhere near ready to compete with the big boys following their second straight embarrassing defeat, this one at the hands of the Patriots.
The Cardinals looked like fish out of the water in the snow in Foxboro and have clearly not handled success well after clinching the NFC West title two weeks ago. The Cardinals were outgained 514-186 in total yardage, which is actually somewhat deceiving in their favor given that 78 of those yards came on a touchdown pass from Matt Leinart to Larry Fitzgerald late in the fourth quarter. Yes, the conditions were poor. But they were just as poor for a Patriots team that rolled to a 38:35-21:25 time of possession advantage against a Cardinals team that looked like it didn't want to be there.
Even the Cardinals opponents didn't know what got into their lackluster performance that quelled any notion that they were legitimate contenders and not just an NFC West-produced playoff participant.
"I'm not really sure what it was. It could have been the weather," said rookie linebacker Jerod Mayo of the Pats when I asked him what was wrong with the Anquan Boldin-less Cardinals.
The Cardinals have one last NFC West tune-up against Seattle before the playoffs begin, one more chance to show what they can do. If Sunday's game is any indication, the answer is not much.
Dick Jauron, Buffalo Bills. Jauron has come under fire, and deservingly so given the team's collapse after a great start. Couple that with last week's ill-advised call to put the game in J.P. Losman's hands in crunch time against the Jets and it is easy to see why some people in Western New York want a new head football coach.
Unfortunately for those people, the players on the Bills didn't get the memo. The Bills played inspired football on the road against Denver and proved they want Jauron back in 2009. "We knew [the Broncos] were going to come out swinging and that we would have to weather the storm, and we did that," said back-up running back Fred Jackson, one of several heroes for Buffalo in a game that saw them win despite an injury to Marshawn Lynch and despite Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters not playing at all.