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.

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