WHAT I SAW IN WEEK 15, 2011

One Legendary Coach Bill Parcells-ism: “I go by what I see.”

In other words, we all tend to overrate and underrate by seeing with our ears.

Each week I’ll give my own highlights of what I saw from the previous NFL week.

(Team records in parentheses include the week’s results)

Away from the game(s)

I saw the 20111 season continue to intrigue.  Despite the intense storylines to have come and gone during this exciting NFL season, week fifteen was the first real Sunday that brought a staggering amount of surprising performances – both good and bad.  Sure, there were a number of upsets, but for most of them it was the scoring margin by which those upsets occurred that raised so many eyebrows.

All of the gathering win-loss zaniness means that the playoff picture is suddenly much more cloudy (mathematically, at least) than it had been just one week prior.  Furthermore, the recent change to schedule divisional matchups during the last few weeks is certainly paying off.  Next week there are a LOT of juicy matchups with playoff implications, and/or few with teams in must-win positions are facing teams with little to play for.

Here’s the (tantalizingly short) list of the teams that have clinched.

NFC:

Green Bay – Who can clinch the No. 1 seed with 1 win and 1 SF loss

New Orleans

San Francisco

AFC:

Pittsburgh

New England

Houston

Baltimore

More will follow below, with the games/teams in the playoff hunt concerned.

I saw Sports Illustrated release the results from a poll of NFL Players for “Worst Commentator”.  Player opinions on this matter should be more valued than they are, because what an average viewer should but too often doesn’t want in a commentator is an above-average understanding of the game – especially with regards to analysts who have played/coached the pro game before – because these TV men should be able to guide viewers through events with an experienced hand.  If one believes the players themselves, many of them PVR Sunday games and as such are more capable of casting an informed vote than those from previous eras.  Here are the results, with each person’s primary network:

1-    Cris Collinsworth (NBC)

2-    Chris Berman (ESPN)

3-    Warren Sapp (NFL Network)

4-    Troy Aikman (FOX)

5-    Ron Jaworski (ESPN)

6-    Jon Gruden (ESPN)

7-    Matt Millen (NFL Network)

8-    Skip Bayless (ESPN)

9-    Mike Mayock (NFL Network)

10- Terry Bradshaw (FOX)

11- Trent Dilfer (ESPN)

12- Joe Buck (FOX)

13- Phil Simms (CBS)

14- Joe Theismann (NFL Network)

15- Michael Irvin (NFL Network)

REACTIONS:

The human Ostrich, Chris Collinsworth: Thank god; at least the players notice.  What makes this vote all the more substantial is the notion that more payers are able/willing to watch the night games because a higher percentage of them are not playing at the time of the broadcast.  In other words, while they may not watch Troy Aikman or Phil Simms as much, they often get a chance to hear a game presided upon by Collinsworth.  And their opinion is that he sucks.  That’s because he does.

 

Joe Buck/Yogi Bear: That’s Bear, Not Berr-a.  Huge difference.  Twelve feels right… until one takes a look at who came in ranked lower, or not at all…

 

Warren Sapp, the Quarter-Pound (w/cheese) Joker:  I like Sapp – he knows his shit.  He just may not say it in a way that enough people are comfortable with.

 

Troy Aikman, The Bull’s-eye: I admit it – I like Aikman while so many others don’t.  Never liked him when he played, but oh well.  I’ll say this:

 

Tweedledee & Tweedledumb, aka Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden: How either members of this pair are ranked lower than Aikman, I don’t know.  Don’t misunderstand; Gruden is a very intelligent student of the game and Jaworski is close behind.  But you’d never know it while having to endure their on-air attempts to be liked.  Do other more down-to-earth analysts simply have the balls to protest their bosses’ directions to make them stick to corporate shitspeak?  It sure seems like these two don’t.

 

TNF- Atlanta(9-5) wins vs. Jacksonville(4-10), 41-14

I saw the Falcons (hopefully) remind themselves of their crucial formula:

[Michael Turner+Roddy White]+Going Early=Win.  Too often this season Atlanta has tried to mimic offenses like New England and Green Bay, but it just goes to show that you can’t stray too far form your identity – even if the ambition is warranted.

I saw Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew tweak his ankle in the third quarter of a game during which one could argue motivation for him to continue would be difficult.  But MoJo kept playing when so many others would have used the injury to avoid playing time.

I saw cause to wonder: What does this trip out to the woodshed say about Tampa Bay, which lost to Jacksonville by an identical 41-14 score, just 4 days prior?

Does it say firing?  (See: Dallas wins @ Tampa Bay, 31-15)

SNF- Dallas(8-6) wins @ Tampa Bay(4-10), 31-15

I saw Operation: Handjob The Cowboys regain steam.

It’s flat out depressing to watch knowledgeable pundits treat beating the Buccaneers by a mere 16 points as a sign that Big D is “getting back to form,” especially when the Jaguars beat Tampa Bay by 27 six days prior.

The fact is, Dallas hasn’t needed to get back to form because they haven’t strayed from their tendencies at all.  They’re still supremely unpredictable: Impressive when beating teams, and hugely frustrating when they lose.

Case in point: Who else is waiting for the other shoe to drop, especially with regards to ’Boys QB Tony Romo?

At least, for their sake, the Giants failed to hold serve Sunday (see: Washington wins @ New York Giants, 23-10)

I saw any hopes for Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris’ keeping his job get bleaker, and it started well before receivers started shying away from must-have fourth quarter catches because they feared contact.  (Shame on you, Preston Parker and Micheal Spurlock.)

According to NFL Network on Thursday, the Buccaneers were prepared to fire their head coach after the embarrassing week 14 loss to the Jaguars, but they didn’t believe that the current staff had an assistant coach capable of serving as interim coach for the remaining three weeks of the regular season.

Ouch.  If that doesn’t spell staff overhaul, what does?

Kansas City(6-8) wins vs. Green Bay(13-1), 19-14

I saw – still see – myself losing my mind.

Yes, Chiefs TE Leonard Pope clearly fumbled the ball before he stepped out of bounds during the fourth quarter on the big play that set up a Kansas City field goal to make the score 12-9 for KC.

Yes, the loose ball crossed the goal line and went out of bounds, which means the play should have resulted in a touchback for the Packers, not a 33-yard gain for the Chiefs.

Yes, Mike McCarthy should have challenged it, but he couldn’t hear from his staff upstairs in time in order to have to challenge the play in order to make the correct call happen.

No, McCarthy didn’t hear in time, and wasn’t, during a close game, willing to wager one of his team’s timeouts on his own ground-level view.

Yes, the NFL needs to adopt the NCAA system of official review, whereby each play is open to review in a manner similar to the new NFL rule concerning scoring plays at the pro level.  NFL referees are good ones; they and the league should bear the burden of ensuring the fairest rule applications.  It shouldn’t to any extent be up to the willingness of the head coaches to put a time out on the line over a mini-game of sorts.

I saw Packers head coach Mike McCarthy show a bit of undefeated hubris, which in times of trouble can come off as desperation.  On the second play of the fourth quarter, trailing the Chiefs 9-7, Green Bay elected to go for it on fourth-and-eight on the Kansas City 39-yard line.

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers wasn’t on his game, and the resulting pass play was incomplete.  The Chiefs scored on their next two possessions to take the upset over the previously undefeated Pack.

I saw the Packers sustain more key injuries while falling from a chance at history down to the rest of the pack in just one game.

Losing WR Greg Jennings – who, as mentioned last week, is the lone Green Bay receiver able to move around the field and play each position – already showed when QB Aaron Rodgers couldn’t develop a comfort zone with anyone as the game wore on.  But the offensive roster took a more critical hit when both right tackles went down against the Chiefs.  First, Brian Bulaga left with a right knee injury.  Next, Derek Sherrod broke his left leg while replacing Bulaga.

Rodgers has always been able to produce despite being pressured, but his improved protection this season is one of the reasons the Pack have been able to score more and overcome the struggles of their own defense.  Both sides of the ball have more pressure on them now.  More flaws showed Sunday, when the MVP favourite played his first bad game of the year, never truly getting any decent timing with his teammates.

Green Bay is now potentially at home until the Super Bowl – if they can still secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs and get there.  But the Christmas night game against Chicago has taken on new importance with San Francisco and New Orleans nipping at the Packers’ heels.

I saw Chiefs interim head coach Romeo Crennel take the best first step possible towards applying for the position on a full-time basis.

Crennel did a fine job turning the Cleveland franchise around, but the Browns did just good enough of a job surprising people in 2007 to get handed a schedule that doomed them the next season, as did some key injuries.

On Sunday it wasn’t just the initial and euphoric postgame Gatorade shower poured on Crennel that showed the players’ support of the coach.  In an interview on NFL Network the day after the game, Kansas City LB Derrick Johnson said that he would “take a bullet” for the accomplished defensive coordinator.  That’s a big step in the right direction, considering that recently fired Chiefs coach Todd Haley carried himself in a way that gave the impression many of his players would rather be on the other end of such a bullet.

Keep this in mind: If Kansas City’s GM Scott Pioli runs back to his Patriots roots, he could promote Crennel, then turn around and take offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels from St. Louis to rekindle his relationship with QB Matt Cassel, whom McDaniels led to success in New England when Tom Brady went down with a knee injury in 2008.  It’s the trendy rumour at the moment, and it makes sense.

I saw anyone who had been wondering why Chiefs LB Tamba Hali was given a contract as hefty as the one he signed in the offseason (5 years, $60 million; $35 million guaranteed) can look at this game for an explanation.  Hali was all over the field, mostly in Packers QB Aaron Rodgers’ grill.

I saw – nay, heard – a funny line in during an NFL Network-aired live radio segment of the Chiefs’ win, specifically when Kansas City RB Jackie Battle scored a TD in the fourth quarter to put his team ahead 19-17:

“Jackie Battle gargles the sweet nectar of the end zone!!”

New Orleans(11-3) wins @ Minnesota(2-12), 42-20

I saw Saints Super-QB Drew Brees throw for 412 yards against the Vikings, putting his just 303 yards short of Dan Marino’s single-season record of 5,084 with two games to go.

I saw Saints Super-QB Drew Brees throw his eleventh 300-yard passing game of the season – a new NFL record.

I saw Saints Super-QB Drew Brees extend his streak of consecutive games with a TD pass to 41 – five shy of Johnny Unitas’ hallowed record of 47.

I saw this column isn’t about stats, but whoa.  Time to stop considering Packers QB Aaron Rodgers as the runaway favourite for MVP.

New England(11-3) wins @ Denver(8-6), 41-23

I saw Belichick versus Tebow start out with disastrous results for one of the worst defenses of all time.

On the first offensive drive of the game for Denver, New England came out in a base 4-3.  (Four defensive linemen and three linebackers)  The Broncos gashed them for three decent runs.

The Pats then switched to a 3-4.  (Three linemen and four linebackers)  Broncos RB Willis McGahee broke a 19-yard run, virtually untouched.

After Denver gained more yards on a run play and pass play New England switched back to a 4-3, presumably to keep Broncos QB Tim Tebow guessing at which pushover personnel he was going to have to take on next.

RB Jeremiah Johnson burst straight up the middle for 25 yards.

Back to the 3-4.  Two plays later Tebow ran the ball for a TD.

To answer, New England’s offense marched down the field in less than 150 seconds to tie the game at 7.

Denver ball.

Back to the good ’ol 3-4.

Remember the scene from The Simpsons when the family’s dog, Santa’s Little Helper, helps sire puppies and they keep jumping up and grabbing potato chips every single time Homer lifts one to his mouth but Homer keeps trying, over and over again?

“This time…”

29 yard run for McGahee.

Then, the Pats stop RB Lance Ball for a loss.

Nevertheless, New England goes back to the 4-3, with a safety up close, just in case…

Tebow hits WR Demaryius Thomas up the middle for 22 yards.

Okay.  The Patriots figure, let’s just forget it and go to the Nickel (five defensive backs) and keep everything in front of us.

Run play to Ball for 32 yards for a touchdown.

Like candy from a baby.

Everyone knew New England’s defense was epically bad against the pass coming into the game at Mile High on Sunday, but they showed their all-around ineptitude by allowing Denver to rush for more yards in the first quarter than a Bill Belichick-opposing offense has put up in any quarter.  The Broncos also put up five plays of 20 yards or more within the first fifteen minutes.

This defense is historically bad.

Sure, they don’t rank poorly in terms of points allowed, but in a good example of how offensive/defensive-specific statistics are more intertwined than is usually accounted for, that ranking is due more to the Patriots offense forcing other teams to keep pace and thus get away from their own identity – which, in fact, New England actually managed to do in spite of their defense…

I saw last week I noted that the Broncos’ coaches and QB Tim Tebow both needed to come out ready to play from start to finish in this game, and they did.  Tebow played very well in the early going, making the solid precision throws that many critics think he can’t.  The play-calling was similarly assertive.  This led the young quarterback to say after the game that Denver can play with teams like New England.

But remember – as mentioned above, this is an awful defense.  We’ll see if Tebow can maintain his supposed progress in the pocket…

Just like we saw what the trendy Denver defense can do against the first A-list offense they’ve faced under Tebowmania – get beat up and down the field.

(Denver was sans S Brian Dawkins, mind you, who would have been nice to have against those deadly Patriots tight ends while they eat the otherwise-young Broncos safeties for lunch.)

I saw that the real reason the Broncos and QB Tim Tebow couldn’t match the Patriots wasn’t because of New England’s scoring pace.  Denver stayed with the Vikings in a high-scoring game.  The difference is that they aren’t built to overcome the turnover margin of 3 that they handed the Pats.  That comes down to field position and other factors above and beyond scoring.

I saw the Patriots inept defense sustain yet another injury when DE Andre Carter went down with what looked like a season-ending quad injury Sunday.  Carter provided the only semblance of a pass rush that New England had, so it will be interesting to see how much further that defensive group can sink.

I saw the Patriots win – and clinch the AFC East – in old Belichickian fashion, with what seemed like a cast of hundreds.  It had been a while since no-names sprouted out on all sides of the ball, in all facets, but that’s what happened.  For instance, when Chad Ochocinco caught his first TD as a Pat in the first quarter he became the fifth different Patriot to catch a touchdown this season.  Fast-forward to the third quarter, and RB Danny Woodhead made his first trip into the end zone in the 2011 campaign.

Six different players ran the ball for New England during the game – one of them being QB Tom Brady, who scored his first rushing TD since last year.

It almost had the feel of a salvo-emptying statement, after hearing all of the Tebow bulletin board hype from the other side.

I saw despite looking like the NFL equivalent of the Washington Generals for the first quarter (the real pushovers, not the Cleveland Cavaliers team that crybaby owner Dan Snyder presides over) the Patriots defense indeed went back to timeless fundamentals to eventually stymie Tebowmania.  The key was to hold position on the edges and not run past Tebow in the pocket.  The Florida alum will simply step up, work free and provide the double-threat of passing or running the ball once the contain men run past him, so New England stayed disciplined and essentially squeezed Tebow into mistakes.

NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin made a good point in this regard.  Proud defenses like the Jets come into a game against Denver wanting to put the Broncos’ new star QB in his place, but they end over-pursuing.  A humbled defense like New England’s has been relegated to holding gaps and staying put just to stay alive.  It’s not as though New England succeeded against Tebow because they aren’t good.  Rather, let it be a warning to individual defenders dying to tee off on Tebow.  He’s already shown that such an attack is folly.

Indianapolis(1-13) wins vs. Tennessee(7-7), 27-13

I saw the weird Newtonian law governing the attraction of opposites show itself again in the NFL.

Only twice in recent memory has anticipation swirled around 16-0 and 0-16 during the same season.  In 2007 the improbable happened with both the first 0-16 team (the Lions) and the first 16-0 team (the Patriots) played out.

This season, it seemed as though this could happen again as Green Bay and Indianapolis both hurtled toward opposite ends of the champion’s spectrum.  But as though the two extremes are tethered together, they both snapped their 13-game streaks on Sunday.

Now it’s a crazy race for overall seeding in the NFL, from top to bottom…

I saw the need to keep in mind that the Indy win has made the “race” to the bottom much closer than had been believed for weeks, just like the Green Bay loss at the other end of the spectrum has made the battle for top seed in the NFC interesting.

All of a sudden, either St. Louis or Minnesota could also end up as the worst team, and thus the recipient of the first overall pick on the 2012 NFL Draft – largely considered the Andrew Luck sweepstakes.  (And too hastily so.  As has been mentioned on THQ more than once, Baylor QB Robert Griffin III, should also be in consideration.)

Taking all of this into account, it’s possible that the 2012 Draft could see two quarterbacks taken with the first two picks – if the results depended upon available talent alone.  Note that none of these three teams (depending on the health of Peyton Manning, of course) are in need of a quarterback.

I saw the Colts win in the fashion they should have been espousing ever since QB Peyton Manning was lost for the season: By minimizing the importance of the quarterback position.  True to form, QB Dan Orlovsky had a minimal impact on the game while RB Donald Brown gobbled up yardage.

Washington(5-9) wins @ New York Giants(7-7), 23-10

I saw more hijinks from the Redskins’ overextended head coach, Mike Shanahan.  It has been well documented how fastidious Shanahan is in terms of scripting the first fifteen plays of any game on offense.  Sunday’s script as such read like Ishtar.

On the first play from scrimmage of the game, Shanahan bet simultaneously on the arm of Washington QB Rex Grossman and the on-and-off again focus of WR Santana Moss to lead his team to the Promised Land.  Amongst the swirling wind in the New Meadowlands, Grossman’s throw fluttered off-course while an Avon Lady could have done a better job of selling the double-move than Moss did.

Interception.

Two Redskins offensive possessions later, why not air it out again?  Because you’ve lost your feel for a game, Shanahan, that’s why.  Sure enough, on the first play of said drive, Grossman went deep – this time for never-sure-bet Jabbar Gaffney.

Interception.

Unfortunately, the Giants were more than willing to bail out the Redskins….

I saw the Giants sleepwalk through another game they knew they could “afford” to lose.  This resigned mindset was most apparent in the team’s strength, the defensive line, where New York got walked all over en route to a 17-0 deficit.

The low point came when DE Jason Pierre-Paul, who, in fitting Giants inconsistent fashion, answered a huge game with an embarrassing moment.  On first-and-goal from the six-yard line, ’Skins FB Darrel Young took the handoff prior to a series of ball fakes in the backfield.  Pierre-Paul was so enticed by the action following the exchange that he had Young in his arms, but passed him off to the next level of defense instead.  That level was standing in the end zone.  17-0 Redskins, and the Giants continued from that point forward to mope their way through another disappointing loss.

I saw, not to bail them out, but the Giants have been unable to overcome injuries to their defensive line.  DE Osi Umenyiora has been out for three games, and DT Justin Tuck has been a black-and-blue shadow of his normal self.  If New York can’t get either of them up to speed for next week’s matchup with the Jets, they’ll really need Tuck and Osi to knock Cowboys QB Tony Romo off his game in week 17.

I saw Giants WR Hakeem Nicks is a very talented receiver, but he made two TD drops – one early in the game when his team need to get a rhythm, and another in the end zone during the early going of the fourth quarter when New York needed to stay in the game.  Nicks needs to hit JUGS (a throwing machine) in the offseason and eliminate such all-too-frequent lapses if he wants to reach the A-list for wideouts.

I saw Redskins RB Roy Helu have another big game.  If Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan – who has substantial say in personnel decisions – still has a decent feel for his players, then how in the name of Marcus Allen did Helu ride the pine all season until his week twelve start?  He never had more than 10 carries in any game prior to that point.

I saw that Saturday’s Christmas Eve game between the two New York teams is a big one.  Both teams need the win to stay alive for the playoffs, and both are trying to bounce back from embarrassing losses in the process…

Philadelphia(6-8) wins vs. New York Jets(8-6), 45-19

I saw that the Eagles are still alive to win the NFC East!  Should Philly, Dallas and New York each finish the regular season with an 8-8 record, Andy Reid’s team is in.  That would make a perfect ending to another unpredictable season in the NFC East.

If I was the rest of the NFC, I’d rather play the Cowboys or Giants – who have been very up and down as of late – over the Eagles, who will be on a roll if they make the postseason, with two of the harder players to game plan against in QB Michael Vick and RB LeSean McCoy.

I saw Eagles RB LeSean McCoy demonstrate the skill to bounce to the outside on runs in a way reminiscent of Hall of Fame RB Marshall Faulk.

I saw the Jets squeeze out another steamer in all three facets of the game.  It was so bad that the New York Times quoted LB Calvin Pace after the game: “We’re lucky they had a heart and stopped scoring. Because if not, it would have gotten really disgusting.”

It’s unlikely that head coach Rex Ryan will be shown the door anytime soon, but that is the treatment most skippers must endure once they can’t even deliver with the part of the team that is supposed to be their coaching strength.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider that Ryan is known for his confusing defensive schemes and formations.  Now consider that (according to New York beat reporter Manish Mehta) Jets safety Eric Smith said he repeatedly heard the Eagles receivers calling out New York’s coverage and blitzes.  Lastly, consider that the Philadelphia skill players aren’t exactly known for their mental aptitude and/or coachability.

I saw that the Jets looked like they really missed S Jim Leonhard.

Eagles tight end Brent Celek tore up the field en route to 156 yards and a TD, and you can bet savvy Giants QB Eli Manning and his own TE, Jake Ballard, took notice.

Detroit(9-5) wins @ Oakland(7-7), 27-28

I saw that the Raiders’ matchup against DT Ndamukong Suh and the Lions was, on paper, the closest thing to a hockey game that the NFL has to offer.  Instead, it turned out to be a clean, well-played and exciting game that went to the very end.

I saw a huge, morale-boosting win for the Lions, especially on offense.  QB Matt Stafford was able to exploit the subpar Raiders defensive backs and regain a connection with All-Pro WR Calvin Johnson that had been lacking in recent weeks.  Sure, Oakland’s pass defense isn’t much to write home about, but sometimes getting that groove back against bad squads carries over to future games against better ones.

On top of that, the gutsy fourth quarter comeback was more reminiscent of Detroit’s early-season eye-catching run than their struggles as of late.

And embattled DE Ndamukong Suh returned from his two-game suspension to block the last-ditch 65-yard FG attempt by Sebastian Janikowski at the end of the game.

So much about sports can depend on timing; never count out a team that could be peaking at the right time.

I saw Raiders QB Carson Palmer show Rock Biter-strong hands. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BkAmZ7Jwxjo&feature=related ) (go to 5:38)

During Oakland’s last-ditch comeback attempt after the Lions drove the field and took the lead with under 40 seconds left in the game Palmer was looking downfield for an open receiver when Detroit DE Cliff Avril approached Palmer from behind and chopped down on the quarterback’s throwing forearm while Palmer was holding the ball.  Somehow, the football barely moved in the former Heisman winner’s big paw while he took the sack.

Carolina(5-9) wins @ Houston(10-4), 28-13

I saw the Panthers finally hold on for a big win against a good team.

I saw Houston get outplayed for the first time in a few months.  It’s not too surprising that, after earning a playoff berth, a team having endured so many burdens came out flat.  Don’t underestimate their latest, and very untimely blow, losing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips until the playoffs due to surgery on his kidney.

I saw Texans RB Arian Foster fumble the ball away during Houston’s week twelve meeting with the Jaguars.  It was his first lost fumble of the season, and just the fourth of his career.  After the game, the tailback said, via Sports Illustrated, “That’s not me… You won’t see that again.”

Two weeks later, Foster fumbled against the Bengals during the third quarter of a close important game.  Luckily, Cincy returned the favour by fumbling it right back during the same play.  Then, on the second play from scrimmage against the Panthers on Sunday, Foster coughed it up again.  Four plays later Carolina scored to take a 7-0 lead and the Texans would not come within a TD of the Panthers for the rest of the game.

8 total fumbles in 636 career carries isn’t exactly a sign of weakness.  By comparison, Chargers RB Ryan Mathews has had 10 in 369 attempts.  But as the pressure mounts on the Houston running game, this newfound fumble issue may be on the mind of the cerebral Foster…

Seattle(7-7) wins @ Chicago(7-7), 38-14

I saw great news when it was revealed that Bears WR Johnny Knox should recover fully after surgery to his spine after having his back bent backwards in gruesome fashion against the Seahawks.

I saw Bears QB Caleb Hanie continue his dismal play, in part by throwing while being hit and having the ball be intercepted for a TD.  Hanie hasn’t played well at all since taking over for injured franchise quarterback Jay Cutler.

I goes to show (yet so few franchises observe and learn form these examples) that great practices and 20 throws in a playoff game do not a dependable backup make.

Nor do quarter-seasons a successful, highly-paid QB make…(see: Arizona wins vs. Cleveland, 20-17)

Arizona(7-7) wins vs. Cleveland(4-10), 20-17(OT)

I saw Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson come through in the clutch again, this time with a Browns punt in overtime that the rookie returned all the way across the field for a 32-yard gain into Cleveland territory to help seal the game.  The play was, however, lost in the shuffle after ’Zona QB John Skelton found WR Larry Fitzgerald for another crucial 32-yard gain to set up a chip-shot field goal for the win.

Amazingly enough, Arizona is still in the playoff hunt, and much of it is surprisingly due to Skelton…

I saw a conceivable plan for the Cardinals to start the 2012 season without their new QB, Kevin Kolb.

According to Jason LaCanfora on NFL.com, Arizona can wash their hands of Kolb prior to next season and only end up paying $12 million out of pocket while having him count for $8 million against the team’s 2012’s salary cap:

(http://www.nfl.com/news/story/09000d5d825268fb/article/cards-owe-qb-kolb-7m-roster-bonus-in-march-could-decline?module=HP11_headline_stack )

That isn’t a bad deal at all, considering the franchise was money-drunk enough to ink Kolb to a contract potentially worth $63.5 million in all.

Granted, the Cards haven’t necessarily seen enough of the in-and-out again Kolb to judge his prospects moving forward, but that should be part of the point: The fifth-year pivot has never played much of a stretch without going down injured, and several of those injuries have already been concussion-related.  Plus, Skelton boasts a 5-1 record this season in games he has finished and, frankly, the offense has looked more in sync with Skelton than it has under Kolb.

The only concern with the situation is this: Originally Kolb’s deal reportedly included $21 million guaranteed.  According to LaCanfora he receives a $10 million signing bonus this year, which is presumably part of said $21 million.

Am I missing something?  What about the other $11 million?

Let’s hope this example isn’t a precedent for owners somehow circumventing “guaranteed” money in player contracts.

Cincinnati(8-6) wins @ St. Louis(2-12), 20-13

I saw what is hopefully a vaunted connection for years to come reach milestones Sunday.  Rookie WR A.J. Green gained his 1,000th receiving yard, and first-time NFL QB Andy Dalton surpassed 3,000 passing yard on the season.

Miami(5-9) wins @ Buffalo(5-9), 30-23

I saw another reason not to hang hopes on how teams look in September and October when noting that these 2 teams currently hold the same win-loss record.  Remember when the Bills led the AFC East and the Dolphins were in the running for this season’s worst record?

I saw RB Reggie Bush break the 200-yard rushing mark in this game.  The Heisman “winner” (he had to return the trophy due to NCAA violations) looks like an entirely different runner with Miami than he ever did in New Orleans.

Bush’s evolution should be a lesson to tailbacks everywhere that timing, vision and the combination of the two – anticipation – are just as important, if not more so, than sheer speed.  It’s much more likely that Miami’s newfound weapon developed a keener sense of the former attributes than the possibility that he somehow came up with more of the latter at this stage of his career.

I saw that Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t the mail-it-in type, which makes his and his team’s swoon since the Harvard grad signed a new contract seem more like coincidence than anything else.  Still, when Fitzpatrick inked a six-year, $59 million deal before their week eight game, Buffalo was 4-2, and then they handed Mike Shanahan the first shutout loss of his head coaching career in Toronto to win the next game.

The Bills have lost seven straight games since then – perhaps indicating the need for owner Ralph Wilson to re-sign another free-agent-to-be RB Fred Jackson.  He went down for they year in week eleven, and the Buffalo offense, not to say team morale, hasn’t been the same without him.

SNF- San Diego(7-7) wins vs. Baltimore(10-4), 34-14

I saw the Ravens continue their habitual inability to sustain the necessary focus from game to game by coming out flat Sunday night – and staying that way while potentially pissing away all the hard work they’d done leading up to this week while trying to secure the AFC North.

NBC play-by-play man Al Michaels made a good point in this regard.  Baltimore’s chief goal in recent years has been to win their games versus the divisional-rival Steelers to get a leg up in the case for the AFC North crown and home field advantage should the two meet again in the postseason (as so often happens).  The Ravens swept both games against Pittsburgh this season, but they stood to lose that precious edge if Pitt could beat the Niners on Monday night (San Fran won), showing how important each and every regular season game is.

It also provided cause for one of this season’s best quotes yet, courtesy Ravens LB Terrell Suggs after the loss:

“This is hell, but we got a vacation house in hell.”

I saw, to the frustration of many who had written them off, the Chargers continue to find their groove – and it all starts with the offense.

The return of WR Malcolm Floyd after being in and out of the lineup due to injury is paying big dividends.  Though WR Vincent Jackson and TE Antonio Gates represent San Diego QB Philip Rivers’ most talented targets, Floyd had established himself as a big play outlet for Rivers in times of need, and the wideout was back to his helpful ways in the clutch Sunday night.

Also, the ’Bolts have finally found a stable combination at left guard and tackle after having to go at least three spots deep on the depth chart at both spots.  This has reduced much of the pass rush pressure that hampered Rivers while he struggled earlier in the season.

The newfound stability on offense has also helped out the defense, which is built to play with leads and rush the passer early and often.

It remains to be seen if yet another successful late playoff push will save the hides of Chargers general manager A.J. Smith and/or head coach Norv Turner, but it’s nonetheless December déja-vu all over again in San Diego.

I saw the Ravens (specifically offensive coordinator and play-caller Cam Cameron) continue to endanger their own success through play-calling.  It’s well known that Baltimore’s passing game relies largely on the deep ball, so once the Chargers had the lead their defense kept both safeties deep in order to dissuade Ravens QB Joe Flacco & Co. from the long passes that have bailed then out more than once this season.  As a result, the Baltimore offense looked listless as it tried to string together short gains through the air in the second half.

Why not run the ball a bit with, say, Pro Bowl RB Ray Rice to make those safeties move closer to the line of scrimmage?

Why do teams whose strength is running the ball for big chunks of yardage fail to take advantage of such opportunities when being dared to, with approximately 20 minutes left in a two or three possession game?

But, then again, Cameron won’t give Rice the ball enough in general.

I saw that Ravens LB Ray Lewis is not back in game shape yet.  That shouldn’t be a surprise.  The future Hall of Famer had missed more than a month with a toe injury, which must have made it virtually impossible to condition his legs during the downtime.  Lewis got beat on several blocks that we would normally own Sunday night, but that isn’t likely to last very long.

I saw Ravens rookie CB Jimmy Smith get burned more than an incense stick by Chargers QB Philip Rivers Sunday night.

One of the rare things to like about Chargers head coach Norv Turner is that he’s one of the few coaches in the NBA and NFL to appreciate a concept that is always underrated, but always gravy: Abusing a clear one-on-one mismatch.

I saw NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth further justify his number one ranking in an NFL player’s poll for Worst Commentator (see: Away from the game(s)) with this doozy during the Chargers-Ravens game after Baltimore QB Joe Flacco left the pocket: “Joe Flacco is as mobile as any quarterback playing in the game right now.”

Does Collinsworth mean that game only?

Wouldn’t it be great if, after such unbelievably dense comments, security had to enter the announcer’s booth and usher Collinsworth out of the room for the rest of the night?  I’d rather endure his on-air partner, play-by-play man Al Michaels cover the remainder of the game alone, while doing his horrible Howard Cosell impersonation than have to put up with a former NFL player who is as clueless about what’s happening in front of him as Collinsworth is.

MNF- San Francisco(11-3) wins vs. Pittsburgh(10-4), 20-3

I saw Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger play really hurt – again – while going through the week of practice sporting his increasingly fashionable monthly walking boot.  That appendage is like Overtim – it brings out the best in the quarterback.  (see: What I Saw, Week 14, Denver wins vs. Chicago, 13-10)

But it was not to be this time.  A high ankle sprain is no joke, and it was even too much for Big Ben and what must have been a pint-sized syringe of cortisone.  It was clear that the Pittsburgh quarterback had virtually no ability to push off with his left foot, not even to follow through on throws.  As ESPN’s pregame analysts Steve Young and Trent Dilfer called it, Roethlisberger warm-up was “brutal.”

Maybe the blackouts in Candlestick Park threw off the timing of his pain killers, but the Niners took advantage of Big Ben’s lack of mobility all night.  If only the Steelers had a running game…

I saw if Monday night’s *Batteries Not Included (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092494/) sequence of blackouts didn’t serve as a selling point for the York family (owners of the Niners) to justify the move to Santa Clara in 2015, I don’t know what is.  The [first half] played out like an annoying baseball game with rain, as opposed to a high-stakes NFL late-season tilt.

Hall of Fame and former Niner WR Jerry Rice was on hand.  Why not just attach a bicycle to the generator, sit the uber-energetic Rice on it, and dangle a new record in front of him like a carrot?  The power generated could hold up the western US seaboard for the night.

I saw Niners QB Alex Smith blow 3 TD chances with bad throws in the first half.  Jim Harbuagh, Smith’s head coach, publicly supports his quarterback whenever possible, but even he must understand that his attack team is just one scant step above the offense of the Trent Dilfer-“led” 2000 Super Bowl-winning Ravens.  If San Francisco wants to sustain success going forward after this season, they likely have to outgrow being able to stomach such a disappointment at QB.

I saw that NFL fans have been very fortunate to see the three best defensive front-seven’s in the NFL go head-to head with each other over the span of six weeks – two of them coached by Harbaugh’s, the other by a Tomlin.

I saw cause to wonder: Wither Dennis Dixon, the third-string QB for the Steelers?  Just two years ago he was the consensus backup to Ben Roethlisberger.  Now, the Pittsburgh brass would seemingly rather watch Charlie Batch stink up open air than play Dixon.

I saw a rare and precious moment during pregame, when former Niners Steve Young and Jerry Rice ran some impromptu passing plays in their business suits.

It was both sad and invigorating at once to see both men’s eyes so aglow, as though nothing since or to come could ever match such moments out on the field.

Hopefully viewers appreciated what they were watching – a sequence not unlike watching any other retired sporting legends goof around doing what they did best, especially Rice.  He did for the new wave of receivers what Michael Jordan did for the ongoing onslaught of perimeter scorers in the NBA.

What I Saw, Week 13

WHAT I SAW IN WEEK 13, 2011

One Legendary Coach Bill Parcells-ism: “I go by what I see.”

In other words, we all tend to overrate and underrate by seeing with our ears.

Each week I’ll give my own highlights of what I saw from the previous NFL week.

(Team records in parentheses include the week’s results)

Away from the game(s)

I saw Kudos should go out to Jimmy Traina, SI.com’s editor of Hot Clicks, whose a-broken-watch-is-right-twice-a-day-which-means-I’m-a-double-genius New Yorker mentality actually got it right by using his big stage to help the blog Big Lead Sports expose slimy ESPN analyst Craig James for placing Boise Sate at No. 24 nationally in his AP voting last week.  The Broncos are 10-1 with a 1-point loss and a schedule ranked as more difficult than many teams with worse records that were in James’ top fifteen.

(http://thebiglead.com/index.php/2011/11/29/craig-james-is-not-a-boise-state-broncos-fan/ ).

There’s a lot of shortcomings in the BCS system to take on, but the biased and ignorant favouritism of many voters is something that public action might affect.  The best way to start is by critiquing voter’s asinine selections in the hopes that accountability is heightened.

I saw former Eagles, Redskins and Vikings QB Donovan McNabb get waived by Minnesota on Thursday – upon his request.

First off, McNabb had this to say at halftime of NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football halftime show about going on the waiver wire and having to wait and see which teams go for him (which none did): “…this happens to everyone.”

Really?  When was the last time one of the most successful QBs of his generation ended up on the waiver wire because he wasn’t seeing the field on his current team?  Oh, wait – potential Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, who gave McNabb advice at halftime, via satellite.  As Warner encouraged the jobless quarterback he reminded him that after the Giants cut him loose at the identical age of thirty-six, Warner recovered by leading the Cardinals to the Super Bowl.

Still, going on the NFL waiver doesn’t happen to everyone.

Second, McNabb could end up signing with the Bears, but speculation that supports this possibility isn’t very thorough.  The former Eagles star has quarterbacked under a word-based offensive play-calling system for his whole pro career, whereas the Chicago/Mike Martz system is numerical.  Remember – McNabb experienced reported difficulty adapting to Washington and Minnesota’s playbooks – both of which are word-oriented.  Asking him to make such an adjustment while being thrust into the situation the Bears are in is asking too much and it’s likely both sides are aware of this.

On top of this, McNabb still seems unwilling to continue his pro career as a backup, and that’s exactly what he’d be next year behind Jay Cutler.  Even the lure of playing in his hometown Chicago isn’t likely enough to change McNabb’s mind in this regard.  He’ll most likely wait it out, and if no team offers him a starting spot for next year we’ll still be watching him on television next year – he just won’t be in an NFL uniform.

I saw NBA players including superstars Kevin Durant and LeBron James participate in what looked like a full-speed flag football game last Thursday – on turf.

What those men do on their own time should be their own personal business.  And, technically, one can sustain a freak injury anywhere, anytime.  But is that game really necessary after severely testing the patience of fans and straining relationships with ownership?  Imagine the reaction if Durant blew his achilles tendon.  Imagine how shitty Durant would feel as well.  Play some Madden for charity instead.

I saw reason to ignore the next time Sports Illustrated’s Peter King chastises someone for drug addiction (in this week’s MMQB):

You know it’s Week 13 of the football season when, one day in midweek, you realize the reason you’ve got the 11 a.m. headache building is because you’ve been pre-occupied and haven’t had a strong cup of Italian Roast.

TNF- Seattle(5-7) wins vs. Philadelphia(4-8), 31-14

I saw that Eagles backup QB Vince Young still isn’t ready to be a starter – even though he’s been forced into such a role in relief of Michael Vick.  Of Young’s four interceptions against the Seahawks Thursday night, two were not really his fault.  One of those was a drop/tip-pick off of the hands of WR Riley Cooper, and the other required an impressive grab by Seahawks CB Brandon Browner.  But the remaining two picks were two of the worst interceptions this season.  The first such misstep was underthrown so badly that not only did Seattle S Kam Chancellor have to come back for the grab as the defender playing in a zone underneath Young’s intended receiver, but NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock rightly called the throw one that a high school player shouldn’t make.  As far as the game-sealing pick-six to LB David Hawthorne goes, the throw was so ill-advised that it’s almost as though the linebacker’s body should have obscured Young’s view of his intended receiver, LeSean McCoy – let alone give the appearance that a completion could be made.

I saw Seahawks QB Tarvaris Jackson lead his offense out on the field following the opening kickoff and survey the huddle.  Something was wrong.  Jackson began waving angrily to the Seattle sideline.  It turns out WR Golden Tate – who is talented, but mildly troubling in his first season and a half as a pro – forgot that being a starter means going out for the first play from scrimmage.  To top it off, his being late to line up appeared to cause an illegal motion penalty on the play. (Seattle was flagged for two players moving in motion simultaneously.)  Unbelievable.

I saw that the experiment involving former O-line coach Juan Castillo serving as Eagles defensive coordinator still isn’t working out.  True, Castillo has some young safeties to teach and the new free agent additions haven’t gelled or been healthy together much, but Thursday it looked more like the Eagles defenders weren’t being positioned in the right places rather than taking bad angles.

On top of that, the Philly D has been tackling horrendously when it does get to the ball in time, and it shouldn’t be underestimated how much coaching and drilling play a role in bad tackling.

Oh, yeah – what drills?  Under the new collective bargaining agreement teams can only practice in pads 14 times per season, and 11 of those have to happen during the first 11 weeks.  (There can also be no more than 2 padded practices in any week.)

Remember those rules for the rest of December when would-be tacklers across the league start grabbing at more air than Louis Armstrong with emphysema.

I saw an interesting montage from NFL Network during the game.  When analyst Mike Mayock said, at his own behest, that LeSean McCoy’s lateral jukes reminded him a bit of the great Barry Sanders I rolled my eyes.  But then several plays from each tailback were shown in alternating order.  Although the Sanders plays weren’t necessarily his most famous, they were almost as impressive.  McCoy’s sequences were strikingly similar.  The Philly back certainly doesn’t make such moves with the freakish reliability that his Hall of Fame Lions counterpart did, but not many pro backs can do well enough to pull them off at all.

I saw Eagles WR DeSean Jackson, who is engaged in a bitter contract dispute with the franchise, spend most of his time in between offensive drives picking a point on the ground about ten feet in front of him and never looking away until it was time to go back out on the field – even when teammates were speaking to him.

How does that relationship mend itself?

On Friday, Philly’s head coach Andy Reid defended Jackson by going so far as to call out NFL Network for apparently portraying the young wideout’s actions as more self-immersed than they seemed.  In turn, RB LeSean McCoy defended Reid against mounting pressure to fire the longtime Eagles coach.

Nice to see Philadelphia finally unite together to defend one another.  It’s too late for this season, but support like that might save Reid’s job.  Maybe.

I saw, with that in mind, that the NFC East has become one of the most underachieving divisions in recent history – if not ever – in terms of head coaching.  Consider the pedigree, tenure, reputation… whichever way you cut it, this group of helmsmen are in the midst of career stretches as disappointing as Robert DeNiro’s and Joe Pesci’s since the turn of the millennium – and it doesn’t look like Martin Scorsese can save any of them.

Something’s got to give from the ownership in this division.  I know their demographic fan bases pump in a lot of revenue, but they need to cut down on their abundance of patience.  This isn’t the Toronto Maple Leafs; don’t just sit on your lucrative fan support without making the changes you need in order to succeed regularly.

To wit: Reid’s precarious situation is mirrored throughout the division – even in Dallas, where, until this week Jason Garrett seemed fairly safe.

Check out the last observation in each of the following NFC East games for more…

Green Bay(12-0) wins @ New York Giants(6-6), 38-35

I saw Packers QB Aaron Rodgers rediscover TE Jermichael Finley.  Not that he had to.  Rodgers has officially joined New England’s Tom Brady and New Orleans’ Drew Brees as an equal-opportunity quarterback.

I saw that Giants QB Eli Manning may have taken his game to the next level (whether that level is actually “elite,” as Eli would have us believe, is somewhat unclear) but his so-called evolution is undermined by the fact that Peyton’s little brother too often bails himself out with deep balls against broken coverage.

Everyone is insinuating that this game could be an eerie foreshadow to a playoff meeting because New York lost to New England in 2007 by the same score of 38-35 before later upsetting the 18-0 Pats in the Super Bowl but we’ll see if the Green Bay DBs let Giants WR Victor Cruz get behind them again, should these two teams meet in January.

I saw reason to bring up a statistic, but partly in order to underwrite it…

Peter King had this to say about the statistical production put up by Packers QB Aaron Rodgers against the Giants on Sunday Night:

 

This is how silly a season Rodgers is having: He completed 28 of 46

for 369 yards, with four touchdowns and an interception, for a 106.2

 rating in the 38-35 against the Giants … and it was his worst game of

the season. You can look it up. It was Rodgers’ lowest-rated game by 5.2

 rating points in the NFL’s arcane way of ranking quarterbacks, but he

 was money all day against a persistent Giants’ rush. He led the Pack five

 plays in 55 seconds to the winning field goal in front of a hostile crowd

 at the Meadowlands Sunday.

Aside from the dumb contradiction of calling out a statistic for misrepresenting a QB’s game as better than it was while immediately saying that the very same quarterback was, in fact, “money all day against a persistent Giants’ rush”, King once again showed his true stripes as a newfangled opponent of QB Rating.  He’s also started to occasionally support ESPN’s QB Rating stat, which has it’s own painfully obvious flaws and counter-examples.

(See cold-hard-football-facts.com “ESPN’s Deeply Flawed Made-For-TV Stat”, posted on Aug 12, 2011 for one example of many.  It points out, among other solid observations, that, in 2008, QB Dan Orlovsky – he of the 0-16 Lions; he who ran out of bounds while rolling out in the end zone, causing a safety – had a better QBR than Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger – he of that year’s Super Bowl-winning team.  CHFF also deserves credit for their extensive research on the traditional QB Rating, as it applies to offense and defensive passer rating allowed and the highly convincing win-loss records to back up their elegant Passer Rating Differential stat).

Can’t we just accept, even after the unavoidable admission that stats never give a complete picture of something as complicated as football performance, that any one stat which tries to be all-encompassing in assessing a team or player will leave things out?  I’m generally an anti-traditionalist, but there’s no reason to think any one stat is better than QB Rating in terms of gauging something that can never be comprehensively quantified.

I saw more frustration around the inconsistency of touchdown calls when a receiver’s possession of a caught ball is in doubt while in the end zone.  In the third quarter, Packers WR Greg Jennings caught a pass from QB Aaron Rodgers.  The only moment during which Jennings wasn’t bobbling the ball before it was knocked out of his hands in the end zone was when he was barely holding it at its tip with his fingertips.  That moment lasted a split second, but after the automatic official review (that follows any scoring play) the TD was upheld to make it 28-17 for Green Bay.

Much less questionable instances of possession have been overruled this season, so let’s hope the league takes another look at refining the details of these rules in the offseason.  The NFL may think there is clarity, but the fans and media sure don’t.

I saw Giants Tom Coughlin spin his teams’ loss into a uniting moment, but the fact is that New York is riding a four-game skid… and they can still win the NFC East by running the table.

That’s a great illustration of the collective letdown orchestrated by the division and it starts at the top, with the coaching.

True, the G-Men have been beset with key injuries from training camp onward but they’ve also been riding an emotional rollercoaster, which can be a sign that a team’s relationship with its coach is fraying.  To the point, aren’t the Giants the most frustrating team around over the last few seasons?  How can mental toughness be so up and down, year in, year out?

New York traded blows with the cream of the crop, Green Bay, on Sunday but proved their inconsistent mental focus by lying down on the Packers’ last-gasp try to avoid overtime: Four plays and 68 yards from scrimmage, then a field goal, then a .500 record for a team that wouldn’t know its own identity if it hit them in the mouth.

Even if Coughlin milks a strong finish out of his team, how long does it take for the front office to tire of the weeks prior to December?  A team with high standards can’t just bail themselves out every season.  If Norv Turner is on the hot seat for that very reason, then Coughlin should be as well.

Arizona(5-7) wins vs. Dallas(7-5), 19-13(OT)

I saw it’s nice to see Cowboys WR Dez Bryant be an imposing factor late in the game.  Dallas needs to find ways to make that happen more often.

I saw that much has already been made – and rightfully so – of Dallas’ failure to use their second timeout with :24 left on the clock in a tie game and instead let time run down to :07 by spiking the ball to set up a 49-yard field goal attempt by Dan Bailey.

Even more has been made – and rightfully so – of Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett’s decision to then do what most are terming “ice his own kicker.”  Bailey knocked his kick through the uprights, but it turned out that Garrett had called time out right before the ball was snapped.  Bailey missed his second attempt, and the game went to overtime, during which the ’Boys defense morphed into a confused kick return unit when RB LaRod Stephens-Howling took a screen pass and had his choice of running lanes en route to the end zone for the upset win.

Garrett didn’t exactly help himself out with his postgame explanation for calling the timeout before Bailey’s kick, saying that the play clock had run down to :06 “and we were just settling in to kick.”  Yet the sideline replay shows Dallas special teams coach Joe DeCamillis and kicking coach Chris Boniol urging Garrett to call a timeout, which the head coach promptly does while walking toward the side judge.  On one hand, both assistant coaches know their kicker’s routine, and may have had a good sense that six seconds wasn’t enough for Bailey to be ready, in which case Garrett’s decision is understandable.  On the other hand, it doesn’t look like Garrett looks at any play clock at either end zone, but rather hears DeCamillis and Boniol shout, “Call timeout!” and proceeds to nix his kicker’s winning kick without giving it much thought.  Six seconds should be at least enough time to think about it, look at the clock, and make extra sure – say, once the clock is down to 2, 3 seconds – before burning the T/O.  It sure seemed as though the ball was snapped well inside of six seconds once Garrett called timeout.  He thusly jumped the gun via a knee-jerk reaction to the opinion of his staff.

I saw that the already-infamous timeout called by Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett before Dallas kicker Dan Bailey hit what could have been a game-winning field goal is just one sign among many that Garrett’s job security should be under scrutiny.

Garrett’s paycheque is relatively safe compared to some of his NFC East colleagues, but if owner Jerry Jones’ standards are as high as he purports, Garrett’s job should rest largely on his ability to turn around Dallas’ December woes in recent years.

The most convincing argument against Garrett keeping his job in Big D, however, is that he shouldn’t have had the position to begin with.  NFL Network analyst Marshall Faulk made a good point during this week’s No Huddle when he remarked that it was bad idea to expect the Cowboys offense to improve by promoting to head coach the same person whose play-calling abilities were under suspicion for several years.  But Jones was essentially locked into that move when he missed out on a head coaching hiring spree in 2007 and felt obliged to settle on Wade Phillips to babysit the spot for Garrett, who was then much more highly regarded than he was last year when Jones signed him to a four-year contract.

New York Jets(7-5) win @ Washington(4-8), 34-19

I saw the Redskins look disorganized and unable to execute – again.

How long can this go on?  Why do Eagles head coach Andy Reid and Giants skipper Tom Coughlin receive so much heat while ’Skins czar Mike Shanahan seems to enjoy undeserved job security?

Coming into this season, Shanahan stood by his personnel decisions at quarterback, saying that he’d stake his career on Rex Grossman and John Beck.  Hold him to that, owner Dan Snyder.  Not only has Shanahan missed the playoff in eight of his last twelve years coaching in the NFL but his indecisiveness in staking his future on the success of two QBs at once should be an indication that he’s not as confident as he used to be.  Without confidence, an NFL head coach isn’t worth his salt.

Pittsburgh(9-3) wins vs. Cincinnati(7-5), 35-7

I saw the Steelers continue to roll.  With all due respect to Hines Ward, we’re finally getting to see a fuller realization of QB Ben Roethlisberger’s skills now that he has a group of receivers that can win most matchups they encounter via elite speed.

How great would Pitt look if it wasn’t for divisional nemesis Baltimore, who has beaten Pittsburgh twice?  The only other team that the Steelers have lost to this season is Houston (by a touchdown) and that’s nothing to be embarrassed about either.

Here’s hoping for yet another Ravens-Steelers postseason rubber match.

Houston(9-3) wins vs. Atlanta(7-5), 17-10

I saw – nay, heard – the home crowd in Houston shriek with horror when star WR Andre Johnson went to the turf with another hamstring injury.  This time Johnson hurt his left hamstring, which is opposite to the one he had surgery on earlier in the season.  This could mean that Sunday’s mishap was a compensation injury (when the healthy side works too hard over time to help out the injured one).

As crucial a time as it is for Houston, look for them to be extra careful with their All-Pro wideout.  They handed him a huge contract in 2010, and with a 4-0 record in the division, the Texans essentially hold a 3-game lead over the second-place Titans.  In fact, Houston could clinch the AFC South by the end of next week’s action, and can thus afford to think ahead to the postseason and play it safe with Johnson.

I saw the once-top-notch Falcons offense regress further.  QB Matt Ryan couldn’t keep his throws low (again), the squad was plagued by crucial holding and false start penalties, the receivers dropped several balls when Ryan was on target, and the ability to assert any presence in the ground game is fading with each passing week.

To make matters worse, Atlanta continued their fourth down blunders on offense.

On fourth and three at the Houston 34 yard line midway through the third quarter the Falcons attempted to complete a short comeback route to WR Roddy White while trailing by seven points.  Given how close stalwart CB Johnathan Joseph had been playing White all game, coupled with Ryan being off with his accuracy on Sunday, it was a risky call to say the least.  The pass was deflected.  Why not try a field goal during a game when scoring is at a premium?  (If K Matt Bryant can’t be trusted from 51 yards out it’s time to shop for a new kicker.)

Then, trailing 17-10 with under three minutes to go, the Falcons lined up to go for it on fourth down and one yard at the Texans’ 20 yard line.  Ryan completed the pass, but only after committing an infraction for delay of game.  Facing fourth and six, Atlanta went for it again – and Ryan was hurried into an incompletion.

Both drives were twelve plays long and both resulted in a turnover on downs.  “Matty Ice” and the defending NFC South champs can’t perform in the clutch…

I saw, speaking of falling short in the clutch, Falcons rookie WR Julio Jones drop a last-play hail Mary bomb in the end zone to force overtime.  The lapses Jones has gone through on occasion this season aren’t enough to question his future but some will try to, given how much Atlanta sacrificed to trade up and pick him in this years’ draft.  It’s a heartless league, and Jones is surely learning fast how non-existent the margin for error is in the pros.

Meanwhile, Atlanta has the feel of a team that has lost it’s identity and isn’t sure how to go about looking for it.

Denver(7-5) wins @ Minnesota(2-10), 35-32

I saw no need to adjust your sensory perception – Broncos QB Tim Tebow won this game with his arm.

Without defensive MVP rookie LB Von Miller, Denver’s defense couldn’t hold Minnesota down the way they had been stymieing opponents during Tebow’s recent ascension.  The Broncos found themselves in what, for them, is a big shootout.  When forced to, (and so far only then) the young pivot does what needs to be done.  On Sunday that included passing, and though he may not continue to throw consistently Tebow passed very well on Sunday.  His feet are staying closer together and making calm movements, as opposed to his jittery jab steps that characterized his earlier starts.  Don’t underestimate how much footwork can help throwing accuracy.  The former two-time national champ at Florida was indeed able to put balls in places where his intended receivers didn’t have to extend themselves or dive, which is a change from previous weeks.

One game isn’t near enough to tell if Tebow’s performance in the pocket was a sign of progress or an aberration.  But it sure adds to the fantabulous extravaganza that is Tebowmania.

I saw that the player most invigorated by the emergence of Broncos QB Tim Tebow might be RB Willis McGahee.  The former Hurricane looks as light on his feet as he did in his first NFL game in 2004.  (McGahee sat out his rookie year in 2003 to rehab from knee surgery.)

I saw Vikings Tight End Kyle Rudolph make a great TD grab in the second quarter.  While being closely contested, Rudolph jumped to catch a Christian Ponder pass and showed strong hands by holding on to a ball in traffic.  He also showed discipline by not giving in to the temptation to pull the ball toward his body.  If Rudolph had tried to do so, the ball likely would have been jarred loose.  Instead, he held it up in the air long enough to establish possession.  (Falcons rookie WR Julio Jones made a similar grab against the Texans, but landed out of bounds.)

I saw that it’s taking an awfully long time for Broncos QB Tim Tebow to start getting the “God doesn’t care about sports – get some perspective” criticism.  This is, after all, the guy who has started each postgame interview by staring into the souls of every viewer while he says, “First and foremost, I’d like to thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ, and my teammates.”

I saw that one way to undercut Tebowmania after his decent passing performance is to look at the Vikings defense.  Antoine Winfield, Minnesota’s best defensive back, was out with an injury but that’s no excuse for Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas having burned them for several long receptions by pulling the old fly pattern trick.  (In other words, Thomas ran in a straight line.)

A number of people have described the Vikes’ passing defense versus the Broncos as Cover 2.  This means that the cornerbacks slow down the wide receivers and follow them for a certain distance before “passing them off” to a safety who rotates over to pick up the wideout once he’s deep.  If Minnesota indeed ran Cover 2 on Thomas’ deep receptions, both of Minny’s safeties need to be cut.  Now.  None of them were even on the TV screen for seconds after Thomas’ catches.  An alternative explanation to the Vikings running a consistent Cover 2 defense is that, a) either the DBs weren’t on the same page as to which scheme of defense they actually were running, or b) the cornerbacks couldn’t hold Thomas back for more than a couple of yards, and let him loose far too early for the safeties to help, in which case the CBs need to be cut – now.

Another explanation remains: Are defenses that go up against Broncos QB Tim Tebow like deer caught in his headlights, even just a little bit?  Likely not.

But the issue bears a vague resemblance to other insinuations out there (which are more amusing than they are believable), that some NFL defenders regard Tebow as some sort of reverse Keyser Söze, who is so close to the boss upstairs that they hesitate to get on his bad side.

“How do you shoot god in the back?  What if you miss?”

Miami(4-8) wins vs. Oakland(7-5), 34-14

I saw the Raiders take themselves down a peg by playing through the game in Miami as though they’d walked into a juggernaut.  The Dolphins are on the rebound in a legitimate way, but to get shut down so thoroughly in the trenches on both sides of the ball casts equally legitimate doubt on the Raiders’ chances going forward.

I saw that embattled Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano may have regained his players and the respect of a good percentage of the media, but unfortunately Miami’s turnaround hasn’t won back the fans – at least not in the form of attendance.  That could be the telltale sign for Sparano’s dismissal at the end of the season.

Kansas City(5-7) wins @ Chicago(7-5), 10-3

I saw Heine v. Palko.  There ought to be a law.

I saw Heine v. Orton.  There was a law:

Go at Chiefs newly acquired QB Kyle Orton’s finger – right away.

Orton lasted one play before dislocating the index finger on his throwing hand.

Appeal rejected; Heine v. Palko back in session.

Ugh.

I saw Bears MVP candidate, RB Matt Forte, go down with an MCL sprain in his right knee.  As of Monday, Chicago head coach Lovie Smith wouldn’t put an official timetable on the tailback’s return.  The injury is such a bad break for Chicago, who is already without QB Jay Cutler – and even worse luck for Forte, who was playing under the dark cloud of tense contract negotiations.  This is the last season of Forte’s current contract.  One can only hope that Bears GM Jerry Angelo doesn’t use this as leverage while bargaining with his tailback.

I saw the Bears stand as an example that while football is the consummate team sport it is often no less reliant on certain players, usually star players.  Chicago is a team with weaknesses just like any other, but as a generally well-rounded team the Bears were contenders – until the loss of two players: QB Jay Cutler and Matt Forte.  Now Da Bears look more like a 3 or 4-win team.

Baltimore(9-3) wins @ Cleveland(4-8), 24-10

I saw the Ravens solve that letdown game problem in a huge way, by relying on the man they should have been featuring all along on offense: RB Ray Rice, who had a career high in yardage for one game.

I saw Ravens RB Ray Rice say this about his big game, played in rain:

(From Peter King’s MMQB)

As a veteran on this team…you want to put your

team on your back when they really need you. Today was one

of those days because of the conditions — it was going to be

better to run it. In games like this, on days like this, you want

to be able to demand the ball and to produce.

Come on, Cam Cameron.  (Baltimore’s offensive coordinator)  Why does it need to rain to justify playing the offense most suited for your personnel?  How on earth is your head coach John Harbaugh – he of the smashmouth mindset – on board for the air attack you force onto QB Joe Flacco, who clearly isn’t ready for it on a weekly basis?

New England(9-3) wins vs. Indianapolis(0-12), 31-24

I saw this has gone on too long: Are the Patriots putting jerseys on pylons and placing them in the defensive backfield in place of actual players?

Colts QB Dan Orlovsky went 30/37 for 353 yards!  New England head coach exceeded his usual bristling during press conference earlier in the week when asked if Indianapolis could even be considered a decent measuring stick for his team:

http://sportstvjobs.visibli.com/share/oZo9l9

Clearly someone still respected Indy’s talent heading into Sunday’s game.  Either he was right to do so, and his team’s pass defense sucks – or both.

Door Number Three please, Monty.

I saw Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski continue to Gronk his way into the Tight End record book by equaling the most TD catches in a single season, with thirteen.  Imagine if New England QB Tom Brady had another tall receiver…

San Francisco(10-2) wins vs. St. Louis(2-10), 26-0

I saw Niners star LB Patrick Willis (a slightly less poor man’s Ray Lewis) go down with a hamstring injury.  Apparently it isn’t as bad as had been originally feared, but everyone in San Fran must be hoping that it doesn’t linger like a bad hammy sometimes can.  Everyone knows that while the Niners defense has matured to a point that they could still hang tough without Willis, they need their team’s heart and soul in order to go deep into January.

I saw Niners QB Alex Smith put up a 142.3 passer rating against the Rams.  I know – this column isn’t the place for stats, but that one is nuttier than finding Elvis in a burrito.

It’s also ample reason on its own for the firing of defensive specialist Steve Spagnuolo as head coach in St. Louis.

Carolina(4-8) wins @ Tampa Bay(4-8), 38-19

I saw Panthers QB Cam Newton set the record for rushing TDs by a quarterback in a season.  He’s also leading the league in rushing touchdowns, ahead of LeSean McCoy and Adrian Peterson.  Last year’s Heisman winner has done so while also carving up defenses in the passing game.

Is anyone still worried that Newton is going to lack sufficient commitment after he said prior to the draft that he wanted to be an entertainer as well as a good football player?  Heaven forbid a player could be both…how can you consistently entertain without dedicating yourself to being good?  Chad Eight-Five has already proven that theory – from the unsuccessful end.

I saw two surprising teams meet Sunday in Tampa Bay.  For entirely different reasons, who would have expected the Bucs and Panthers to have the same record after twelve games?

I saw that if there were any team to do it, I suppose the Buccaneers would have been the ones to supplant the Panthers in the NFC South basement – even for one week.  That doesn’t take away from the fact that Tampa Bay has fallen faster than it rose.

The worst part may have come during the postgame press conference when Bucs head coach Raheem Morris seemed to agree, saying, albeit sheepishly: “I can take getting beat by a better football team, which they were.”  Ouch.

I saw I need to take that last comment back.  Tampa Bay fell even farther when Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris kicked DT Brian Price out of the game for committing a personal foul.  In fact, Morris sent Price to the locker room, and told him to “go home.”  In the postgame press conference, Morris explained that Price had done something that was “foolish” and “selfish.”

That might be true, and maybe a coach like Jim Schwartz in Motown is secretly jealous of Morris for what he did (See: New Orleans wins vs. Detroit, 31-17), but treating young players with such a paternal attitude could cause Morris to lose his team in the long run.

Tennessee(7-5) wins @ Buffalo(5-7), 23-17

I saw that the Titans are quietly hanging around the playoff picture, but it may not last.  The recent key seems to have been the so-called resurgence of RB Chris Johnson, but putting up numbers against the nondescript run defenses of the Buccaneers and Bills doesn’t necessarily mean that Tennessee’s ground game is back.

I saw that Buffalo has simply fallen apart.  The Bills have sustained several key injuries, most notably RB and team captain Fred Jackson, but they need a head coach who can sustain intensity for a whole season despite whatever obstacles might present themselves, and Chan Gailey is not that guy.

SNF- New Orleans(9-3) wins vs. Detroit(7-5),31-17

I saw the Lions continue their inability to control their emotions.  Detroit endured numerous – and untimely – penalties due to mental lapses that fit the description of either dirty, undisciplined, or both.  It all culminated with TE Brandon Pettigrew shoving an official while that referee was trying to break up a scuffle Pettigrew had gotten in after the whistle.

What does Lions head coach Jim Schwartz do to right this ship?  He looked furious after each of the Detroit infractions.

The ESPN Monday Night Countdown analyst team raised an interesting point, albeit briefly: Prior to the new CBA (or, more likely, well before that) the need for self-discipline could have been “wind-sprinted” into players.  Is that possible today?  (Is the answer to that something to feel good about?  Bad?)

Whatever Schwartz decides to do with his team, it needs to be less paternal than the actions of his colleague Raheem Morris (See: Carolina wins @ Tampa Bay, 38-19).  It also should be oriented around helping the players find a different way for them to motivate themselves than anger.

I saw Lions rookie DT Nick Fairley start to show real promise while stepping up to relieve suspended teammate Ndamukong Suh.  Fairley held his ground consistently, and was able to use his feet to separate from blocks and pursue the ball despite a sore foot.  The former Auburn Tiger’s draft stock rightfully fell from the potential first overall pick status he enjoyed in the weeks following the BCS Championship Game, but for Detroit to snag him with the thirteenth pick seemed like thievery at the time.  Fairley gave a glimpse as to why that was the case on Sunday night.

I saw Lions CB Eric Wright get fully undressed by Saints WR Robert Meachem on the TD that made it 17-0 in the second quarter.  The New Orleans wideout didn’t make any nifty moves, but he got an angle on Wright, who proceeded to panic, get disoriented and look like a lost fool in a way that he’ll not live down for a while.  Wright committed a cardinal sin for a defender: Never turn your back to a ballcarrier.  Get beat, fine.  But don’t turn around until after the guy has passed you.

I saw the Lions’ beast of a WR Calvin Johnson get the most eye-catching sign of respect the NFL has seen since Bill Belichick’s Patriots went for it on fourth down and two to keep the ball away from Colts QB Peyton Manning in 2009.

During the second quarter, Lions RB Kevin Smith punched in a two-yard TD run to make the score 17-7 for New Orleans.  It’s widely known that Detroit loves to look for Megatron (Johnson) inside the opponents’ red zone.  The Saints made this hilariously obvious by double-teaming Johnson at the line of scrimmage before the snap.  As NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth remarked, the scene looked more like a gunner on the punt team lining up to pursue a punt with two blockers on him than it did a Wide Receiver.

MNF- San Diego(5-7) wins @ Jacksonville(3-9), 38-14

I saw it’s going to be hard not to give Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew TFQ’s “Atlas Award.”  Who else carries an awful team so admirably on his back, still playing at a high level when others would be/are polishing off their fishing rods.  And MoJo is still playing with a love for the game evident in such plays as when he and Chargers CB Quentin Jammer hit each other as hard as they could near the sidelines on a Jones-Drew carry, and the tailback was smiling and yipping like a wide-eyed teen.

I saw reason to wonder: Since Jags head coach Jack Del Rio was fired last week, and new ownership bought the team almost immediately afterward, did Shahid Khan (ownership to be approved on Jan. 4) say, “I’ll buy your team, but not with Jack Del Rio coaching it”?  Word is that Khan plans to be a hands-on NFL owner and he considers himself football-savvy.  If the deal and firing went anything like how it came off, he’s already helped prove the latter.

I saw something for the 378 Jaguars fans around the world to hold out hope for: According to Jason LaCanfora of the NFL Network, Jacksonville reached out to former Packers head coach Mike Sherman prior to handing Jack Del Rio the pink slip.  Sherman is likely the highest profile that new prospective owner Shahid Khan could get to helm his moribund franchise.

But then LaCanfora said that inept Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is ready to head coach and could also be a candidate, so there goes LaCanfora’s credibility on the matter.