First and 10: Bears feast on Jets defense; more early-game analysis
If you were willing to overlook New York's 45-3 loss to the Patriots three weeks ago, the Bears put to rest any notion this is the same Jets defense as last season. Jay Cutler recovered from a rough start to throw three touchdowns in the third quarter and Matt Forte ran for 113 yards to help Chicago come a step closer to getting a first-round bye. The Bears have already won the NFC North and clinch the No. 2 seed with a win at Green Bay next week. Cutler had to scare Bears fans a bit in the first half, when he threw a bad pick-six into double coverage. But the total meltdown Cutler's critics are waiting for didn't happen. Meanwhile, even in a loss, the Jets at least have to feel good about their offensive performance. With a sore right shoulder, Mark Sanchez completed 24 of 37 passes for 269 yards, a touchdown and one pick. Remember, the Jets' offense peaked at this time last season and the offensive line did a great job of shutting down Julius Peppers and the Bears' pass rush.
Not only are the Chiefs going to the playoffs, they are playing well enough to be a dangerous team in the postseason. We all know the Chiefs can run as well as any team in the league. Their passing game looked pretty dangerous as well on Sunday. Matt Cassel has gone from overpaid pretty boy to borderline MVP candidate and tough guy since he recovered so quickly from his appendectomy. Of course, you have to take Sunday's offensive explosion with a grain of salt since the Titans are done playing hard for Jeff Fisher. The signature play of the game came in the first half when Cassel hit Dwayne Bowe for a 75-yard TD on a third-and-19. Think that would happen under normal circumstances to a Fisher defense?
Now we know why more great linebackers don't become head coaches. They hate quarterbacks too much. That's the only explanation for Mike Singletary jawing with his starter Troy Smith, who got the job because the head coach had argued with Alex Smith. So Alex came back in and looked good, until he was stripped by St. Louis' Chris Long and lost the ball on a potential game-tying drive. Long has shown a knack for making big plays in the fourth quarter and is one of several young players who deserve a lot of credit for putting the Rams in position to win the NFC West. But the story of the game is Singletary, who may end up costing himself a chance at retaining his job with another embarrassing confrontation.
We probably didn't learn much about the Patriots against the Bills on Sunday, other than they'll have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Tom Brady is 17-1 against Buffalo and the game got out of control quickly. The Bills actually looked like they were going to move the ball well early, but Ryan Fitzpatrick turned the ball over deep in New England territory -- the Pats' fourth straight game with a red-zone turnover -- and they never recovered. New England did show it could run the ball on a windy afternoon in Buffalo. Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis combined for 197 yards and made life very easy for Brady.
The Ravens still have a shot to win the AFC North if Pittsburgh stumbles. The win was characteristic of the season -- they ran the ball well, played tough defense and seemed to do just enough to win comfortably. Ray Rice rushed for 92 yards and will once again be Baltimore's main weapon in the postseason. Ed Reed had two interceptions and like clockwork tried a crazy lateral on one of the returns. Reed has to know that's the wrong play, but he's just too close to the end of his career and doesn't care anymore. Meanwhile, Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy threw three picks and may have hurt his chance of winning the starting job for next season. McCoy has had good overall numbers, but is only 2-5 as a starter and could use a strong performance in Week 17 against the Steelers.
The Redskins weren't playing for anything and were decimated by injuries on defense, but they just played harder than the Jags. Imagine if they had played with that kind of energy all season for Mike Shanahan? Jacksonville loses a lot of its swagger without Maurice Jones-Drew in the lineup and quarterback David Garrard came up small in overtime, throwing a bad pick that set up the winning field goal. Once again, the Jags go from playoff position to a possible .500 season. This late-season could put Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio back on the hot seat and could mean big changes for the franchise in the offseason.
The Lions are a road juggernaut, winning their second in a row away from home. Of course, it was at Miami, where the Dolphins are now 1-7 on the season. Although late-season runs can be deceiving, Lions fans have to be excited about a three-game win streak. Ndamukong Suh is the most exciting young defensive player in the NFL and provides the foundation for what could be a very good unit. The Dolphins had a hollow historical milestone -- Brandon Marshall and Davone Bess now have the most catches in a season for any tandem of Miami receivers. But we all know that's just a reflection of how easy it is to pass in today's game, and that duo doesn't yet deserve to be mentioned with Mark Clayton and Mark Duper.
• Brady didn't have to do much, but he strengthened his hold on the MVP by throwing three more touchdowns and broke Bernie Kosar's record for most attempts (319) without throwing a pick. Brady has become the master of throwing balls close to the ground and away from hot spots to avoid turnovers. Brady's 34-4 TD-to-INT differential is the most impressive stat of the season, and shows his consistency. Michael Vick may be flashier and some of his wins have been more dramatic, but Brady's been too close to perfection to deny the award this season.
• The early games weren't kind for coaches on the hot seat. Singletary led the way with his theatrical meltdown. But Eric Mangini and Fisher also lost and might have let any chance to keep their jobs slip away. It will be interesting to see if any more coaches join the list in a week. Buffalo's Chan Gailey hasn't had much time, but the Bills weren't competitive against the Pats. Everyone assumed Del Rio had to make the playoffs to keep the Jags job this season. And the Dolphins organization has to be concerned about their inability to win at home and perhaps Tony Sparano could come under some fire. A lot of these coaches better hope the labor situation will buy them time since teams won't want to pay new coaches.
• The NFL season definitely doesn't feel like it needs three more weeks. The NFLPA's talk about keeping players healthy through an 18-game schedule clearly isn't just a bargaining ploy. And the league may have to figure out a way to keep more games competitive, which could mean expanding the playoffs. But with all criticism the NFC West got for almost putting a sub-.500 team in the playoffs, no one wants to see the postseason watered down.