What I Saw, Wk 17 2012

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 17, 2012

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

Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

This is What I Saw from the past week’s NFL action.

(A list of TFQ’s PROPS from this column will be posted monthly.)

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Away from the game(s)

I SAW the end to a regular season for the ages.  More thoughts about the whole season will be forthcoming from TFQ, with awards, team report cards and other posts about significant themes throughout the year, such as youth being served.

For now, let’s try to take stock of the only 16-game Sunday of the year.  Much of the playoff picture had already been determined, but that didn’t stop the NFL from coming through with excitement and intrigue.   It’s time to juggle playoff prognostication along with tucking teams into their sleeping bags they took with them on their fishing trips.  Oh – and the occasional movie reference, of course.

I SAW Week 17 have a nicely spread out broadcast schedule, with nine one o’clock games and 6 four o’clock ones.  (There’s also the benefit in recent years of having more divisional games scheduled late in the season.)

Why is it that the NFL will make an effort on this last week of the regular season to spread games out, but we continually have to deal with two or three four o’clock games during other weeks?  I understand that the eastern coast is more populous, but they can just watch games later in the day.  Make it happen.  It’s the age of the NFL Ticket and multi-game viewing, and more late games lessens the odds of having a post-early games hangover once off-season matchup plans go awry.  No one likes hangovers.

Either way, the season has now reached the point when no two games are played at once.  It’s the playoffs.  Let’s take a look….

I SAW the complicated playoff picture look like this:

As usual, let’s start with the AFC:

  1. Denver (13-3)
  2. New England (12-4)
  3. Houston (12-4)
  4. Baltimore (10-6)
  5. Indianapolis (11-5)
  6. Cincinnati (10-6)

Let’s start at the top.  Denver and New England both handled their Week 17 games against lesser opponents and earned next week off.

While it’s no surprise to see Peyton Manning and Tom Brady sitting atop the AFC, what is unexpected is Houston’s absence among the top two seeds.  It only took one day – one loss to the Colts and getting leapfrogged by the Pats and Broncos – for the Texans to drop from the number one seed in the conference down to number three.  Their 11-1 start already feels like a distant memory, and now a group of players who had been expecting a week off to start January for at least a month have to play on Saturday with a shortened rest.  Houston hosts Cincinnati on Saturday, in a rematch of last year’s Wild Card game (which Houston won).

I expect Houston to persevere, but it’s by no means a done deal.  Texans QB Matt Schaub is playing like shit (see: Indianapolis wins vs. Houston, 28-16), and he doesn’t handle constant pass pressure well.  Cue the Bengals defense, which makes sacks in abundance.  Cincy had 51 QB takedowns this season, just one less than the league leaders, Denver and St. Louis.  Whether DT Geno Atkins and his fellow Bengals can outplay DE J.J. Watt and the Texans’ front seven might decide this game.  If Houston gets upset, remember that this was a game they didn’t want to play.

The other Wild Card game, Indianapolis at Baltimore, has a set of narratives as intense and intertwined as an HBO series.

To begin with, the matchup’s history makes for some deep-seeded animosity.  On March 29, 1984, after league owners voted in favour of Robert Irsay moving his team from Baltimore to Indianapolis, Irsay bolted with his franchise in the dead of night with a fleet of Mayflower moving trucks.  The whole move was as sudden as when a monorail salesman fled Springfield, leaving only Leonard Nimoy and Batman the Scientist to save the day.  There was no such redemption in Baltimore, and many fans there still hold a substantial grudge against the Colts.  (Ironically, it wasn’t until late owner Art Modell left Cleveland in 1996 to the chagrin of fans there that Baltimore got another team.)

Irsay’s son, Jim, brings his Colts into Baltimore on Sunday with his recent cancer surviving head coach, Chuck Pagano.  Pagano spent four years as a Ravens coach (2008-11), and if you’re familiar with the quick and familial connection the coach has fostered with Colts players in less than a full season – most of it spent on leave for chemotherapy – imagine the love Baltimore defenders feel for him.

That’s not the only coaching reunion in this matchup.  Like Pagano, after just one year away from his old team, Ravens interim offensive coordinator goes up against the team that fired him as head coach last season after going 2-14 – largely due to the absence of QB Peyton Manning.

It will be up to Caldwell to try and massage the temperamental game of QB Joe Flacco, in no small part by utilizing RB Ray Rice.  Flacco is the frontrunner for TFQ’s Upside Down Award for Worst Negotiator.  Despite a career high in passing yardage, the fifth-year pro has been awful at times this season, the last one of his current contract.  Flacco has to know that a one-and-done showing in the playoffs won’t exactly sex up his next contract – wherever it might be.  For him, it’s put up or shut up.

I’d love to favor the Colts here – they are definitely the sexier pick.  But Ravens LB Ray Lewis is expected to return, and he along with fellow vets LB Terrell Suggs and S Ed Reed should be able to stymie a one-dimensional Indy offense that relies too heavily on rookie QB Andrew Luck.  Lewis’ announcement on Tuesday that he’ll be retiring after this postseason (see: Cincinnati wins vs. Baltimore, 23-17) only increases the odds of Baltimore’s defense coming out strong.  It’s just too hard to believe that the surefire Hall Of Famer won’t lead his team to at least one more win before he hangs up his cleats.  Luck doesn’t have the luxury of the second- or third-best most productive tailback in the NFL to take heat off of him – like his rookie counterparts in Seattle and Washington, respectively.  The Colts have been uniquely resilient this season, so they don’t necessarily deserve to experience a letdown game upon making the postseason, but my gut tells me that’s what they’ll provide.

And, the NFC:

  1. Atlanta (13-3)
  2. San Francisco (11-4-1)
  3. Green Bay (11-5)
  4. Washington (10-6)
  5. Seattle (11-5)
  6. Minnesota (10-6)

As has been the case for at least a month now, this conference is much more suspenseful.  The Falcons and Niners have seized the top two seeds, and both need the extra week of rest since their most valuable defensive players are hurt.  I’m talking about San Fran’s block-magnet, DL Justin Smith, and Atlanta’s lone consistent pass rusher, DE John Abraham.  Neither team has looked particularly sharp over the last three games, and might need to lean on their defensive strengths when the time comes.

There have been some exciting rubber matches in the playoffs, and on Saturday night we get one of the better ones in recent memory, when the Packers and Vikings meet just one week after Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson stole the show in a gripping win over Green Bay to sneak into the postseason.  This game will depend upon how much gas the Six Million Dollar Tailback has left in his bionic tank after a career-high 34 carries on Sunday.  Peterson’s already proven that he can beat Green Bay with a big day (and help from QB Christian Ponder – see Minnesota wins vs. Green Bay, 37-34) but asking him for another superlative performance against a team that’s already seen Minny’s blocking schemes twice this season might be asking too much.  Besides, the Packers have been quietly bristling ever since an upset defeat in last year’s playoffs at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl champs, the Giants – a mood that was only hardened by a controversial loss to the Seahawks in Week 3 on a bad call by replacement refs.  (See: What I Saw, Wk 3)  The return of Packers S Charles Woodson is a big X-factor as well.  I like the Vikes’ chances, but the Pack is on a mission with a longer plan.  They’ll win even if Peterson goes off.  One last thought: Players don’t like to hit in the cold.  It will be cold in Lambeau on Saturday.  Watch out for AP.

Seahawks at Redskins.  Wow.  It’s rookie QB Russell Wilson versus rookie QB Robert Griffin III.  Second-leading rusher this season, Alfred Morris, versus third-leading rusher, Marshawn Lynch.  Sure, those guys don’t face one another on the field, but the ’Hawks sport the top defense in the league and the ’Skins have the NFL’s fourth-best scoring offense, so there’s that.

Washington has won seven straight, Seattle five.  Both teams are hot.  This is the hardest pick of the weekend.  If the game was in Seattle it would be easier to go with the Seahawks, but with RG3 not yet at 100 percent after a knee injury three weeks ago I see the Redskins nonetheless losing a heartbreaker.  The pressure is on Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and his squad to keep Wilson and Lynch in check, and though the coach has his players overachieving during their current win streak they are undermanned in this one.

The beauty of this season’s Wild Card round is that all four games are tough to call – as are the playoffs as a whole….

I SAW that I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the path to an NFL championship is a marathon, not a sprint.  Momentum is key.  Consider: How bad do Houston and Atlanta look now, after having been the darlings of the league for the first eleven games or so?  Also, two teams leave with the dirty tastes of having won in Week 17 but still missing the playoffs – the Giants and Bears – and it’s worth noting that both teams shat the bed for the last part of the season prior to winning on Sunday.

But to play Devil’s Advocate, there are historical examples to the contrary, such as the Cardinals during the 2008 season.  With QB Kurt Warner that team backed into the playoffs with an ugly losing streak and found themselves in the Super Bowl.

In other words, it should be a competitive and unpredictable postseason.  Can’t wait.

I SAW NFL Network’s Michael Irvin make a good point about strategy for playoff-bound teams resting players for meaningless Week 17 games.  He picked it up from his years with two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Jimmy Johnson, who knows a thing or two about motivating players.  As Irvin put it, having key players miss a game to rest isn’t as important at losing a whole week of focus in practice when said players are told in advance that they won’t play much or at all during the final game of the regular season.  Teams in such situations should keep decisions about playing time amongst the coaching staff until after the weeks’ practices are through.  Otherwise, one exacerbates the problem of gathering rust while players loaf it through practices prior to a game they know they won’t be involved in.

I SAW a deluge of pink slips on Black Monday.  In many senses the high amount of firings on the first day of the offseason for non-playoff teams isn’t a surprise, since there were none of the usual in-season can jobs except for Marty Hurney, the GM in Carolina.  For the next while there will be an intense flurry of behind-the-scenes interviews, as teams clamor to snag their preferable candidate(s) before someone else does.  Some of the fired head coaches will likely find identical jobs elsewhere since the pool of other candidates is thinner than it has been in recent years.  Bill Cowher’s name hasn’t come up at all, Jon Gruden has apparently not scheduled any interviews, and Brian Billick seemed disinterested when asked about seeking out new employment during an NFL Network broadcast.  That leaves Mike Holmgren as the only successful former NFL head coach, along with some of the typical college names, like Chip Kelly.

Closer analysis of each decision – and the resulting hires – will come later this year with each team’s report cards.  For now, let’s just take a quick look at the seven head coaching and five general manager positions that were freed up on Monday:

Head Coaches Fired On Monday

Ken Wisenhunt, Cardinals – When you’re a coach that comes from an offensive background and your offense is one of the sorriest groups to come along in years, well, enough said.

Chan Gailey, Bills – How Gailey lasted this long is beyond me, but yet another second half collapse sealed his fate, if the awful-ass start for an expensive defense hadn’t already done so.

Romeo Crennel, Chiefs – Romeo’s fate was about as star-crossed as his Shakespearean namesake.  At least he won’t have to step foot in a certain parking facility again – the one in which he, GM Scott Pioli and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs witnessed the suicide of LB Jovan Belcher after the linebacker had already murdered his girlfriend in cold blood.  If there’s anyone who has earned a fresh start, it’s Crennel.  (As of this moment, Pioli’s job hasn’t been assured as safe yet either.)

Pat Shurmur, Browns – With the exception of the move in Chicago (see below), this firing is the worst idea.  I understand that new Owner Jimmy Haslam wants to wash his hands of the previous regime, but despite the 5-11 record Cleveland had a good thing going this season, with a young nucleus that was growing up and coming together in tandem with Shurmur.  I saw RB Trent Richardson get interviewed on Monday, and if his teammates feel the same way he does, Shurmur’s firing wasn’t a welcome move within the locker room.

Norv Turner, Chargers – About two or three years too late.  Anyone else get the feeling that owner Alex Spanos made this decision immediately after Ravens RB Ray Rice’s late-game fourth-and-29 conversion against his team in Week 12?  The only priority moving forward is that owners break the hire-fire-hire cycle that Turner has lived within since the nineties.  Once he does such a good job as offensive coordinator with his next team that his name gets tossed around as a head coaching candidate in several years’ time, prospective employers must put an end to the pattern and make sure Turner stays where he belongs – in the coaches’ booth, calling plays.  (See: Wade Phillips)

Lovie Smith, Bears – I’ve never known players to be more upset about the firing of their head coach than the Bears are over Smith being let go.  Despite the team having missed five out of the last six playoffs, WR/KR Devin Hester’s public hint at retirement is but one indication of a Chicago locker room that, according to NFL Network’s Rebecca Haarlow, was tearful and angry upon Smith’s departure.  One can only assume that GM Phil Emery is looking for an offensive coach to replace Smith.  If Emery is smart, he’ll try to convince defensive assistant Rod Marinelli to coach the Bears defense because that unit doesn’t have anywhere near the personnel to change schemes from the Tampa 2, and any new face coming in will have a very hard time winning over the hearts of defenders who were fiercely loyal to Smith.

Andy Reid, Eagles –  Among the fired coaches, Reid is the best prospect for a new team.  In his first year in 1999 he drafted a QB named Donovan McNabb out of Syracuse and came under immediate fire for it.  The criticism in the crucible of Philly never stopped for 14 years, but it should have at some point during a run that included nine playoff appearances in those 14 seasons, five NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl appearance.  Word from Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie himself is that Reid will coach next year.  If Reid can’t find a job, there’s something wrong with the NFL.  If he wants to reunite with QB Kevin Kolb in Arizona (as has been rumored), there’s something wrong with Reid.

UPDATE (4/1/2013): Reid has reportedly joined the Chiefs organization, and Pioli has left as GM.

One overall thought: Not to oversimplify but Reid, Wisenhunt and Smith can all serve as an indication of how a lack of an offensive line can kill jobs.  I’m not saying that this was all there was behind the firings – far from it.  But we all understand that a team can’t get much done without blocking on offense, so it should follow that jobs won’t last in such a climate.

General Managers Fired On Monday

A.J. Smith, Chargers – Like his fired coach, it’s a surprise that Smith has lasted this long.  In his case, the roster wasn’t necessarily thin on talent, but it’s been several years since San Diego has been able to create any on-field chemistry – and even longer since they were feared by opponents.

Rod Graves, Cardinals – When a team falls apart like ’Zona did – turning from a 4-0 start into a 1-11 finish – heads have to roll.  Graves has done a good job assembling a young nucleus on the defense but the offense is in shambles, in no small part due to a sad roster on that side of the ball.

Mike Tannenbaum, Jets – Thank the stars.  You’ll have to do it somewhere else than at the Jets’ facility though, because there aren’t any stars there.  Without All-World CB Darrelle Revis this team is far too ugly for the GM to get away with.  Three years ago the Jets were one of the top teams in the AFC, but they were getting old – and slow.  All Tannenbaum did to solve to problem was let the roster become one of the thinnest in the league (consider that when Revis and WR Santonio Holmes were lost for the season New York’s next most talented receiver was probably CB Antonio Cromartie) and create an absolute nightmare at the quarterback position by giving then-starter Mark Sanchez a fat contract extension (whoops) and signing Tim Tebow to a multi-million dollar deal (double, triple, quadruple whoops).

Tom Heckert Jr, Browns – I dislike this move as much as the Shurmur firing, and for the same reasons I mentioned above.

Gene Smith, Jaguars – File this under the “something had to give” column.

I SAW one coaching story that has gone under the radar: The stepping down of Chris Ault from his head coaching position at Nevada University.  Ault is 67 years old, but told The Reno-Gazette Journal (via NFL.com), “I have a lot left in me…. I’m in my offensive prime.

Who is Ault?  Beyond coaching Niners QB Colin Kaepernick in college, Ault is the creator of the read-option “Pistol” offense that has been taking both college and the pros by storm ever since current Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer popularized it at University of Utah with Alex Smith.

Numerous coaches have made the pilgrimage to Nevada over the years to learn from Ault.  Don’t be surprised if he ends up on an NFL team for next season, either in an assistant coaching or advisory role.

I SAW the call to drag out the dregs, in inverted order!  Yes, the NFL is a year-round phenomenon.  As such, any team not either in the playoffs or searching for new key staff members are already looking ahead to the draft, and their position in the first round has been set:

2013 Draft Order

1. Chiefs 11. Chargers
2. Jaguars 12. Dolphins
3. Raiders 13. Buccaneers
4. Eagles 14. Panthers
5. Lions 15. Saints
6. Browns 16. Rams
7. Cardinals 17. Steelers
8. Bills 18. Cowboys
9. Jets 19. Giants
10. Titans 20. Bears

Enough with the off-field noise.  Let’s get to the games, starting with the ones that affected the final two playoff spots in the NFC….

SNF- Washington (10-6) wins vs. Dallas (8-7), 28-18

I SAW the Redskins party like it’s 1999 – the last time Washington won the NFC East before Sunday.

The ’Skins became just the second team in NFL history to make the postseason after a 3-6 start (the other: the 1996 Jags) thanks to a seven-game win streak to finish the regular season.  They also went from worst to first in the NFC East, and did so on the strength of a 5-1 divisional record this season.  Only the Packers (also 5-1) have as good a divisional mark as the Redskins this season.

The icing on the cake on Sunday is that Washington handled a hot Cowboys team with their star rookie QB, Robert Griffin III, completing just 9 passes.  Credit his now-not-so-lesser-known rookie backfield partner, RB Alfred Morris.  (See below.)

I SAW the Cowboys miss the playoffs for the third straight season.  They’ve also lost a win-or-go-home game at the end of the regular season for the third time in five years.

You just know that The Emperor, Dallas owner Jerry Jones, wants to shoot lightning bolts at a room full of people over this.  The problem is that Jones is much more of a pussy than any Sith lord would allow, because he’s going to keep the underachieving and overmatched Jason Garrett as head coach.  Rumor has even spread (at least via NFL Network’s Total Access) that the team is considering adding another offensive specialist to do the offensive play calling.  Does the emperor truly believe that this stiff, apologetic underling can excel in being a walk-about field general?  Garrett should go, but somehow after having fractured relationships with former coaches – the great Tom Landry, two-time champ Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer, Dave Campo and Wade Phillips – Jones is uber-loyal to his failing red-haired former player.

Brain fart:

Note that, interestingly enough, the only coach to leave on his own terms during The Emperor’s tenure in Big D is Bill Parcells, who is very controlling himself.  Maybe that should be a hint for Jones to either fire himself as general manager and/or bring in a head coach with some nuts.  But he won’t.  The Emperor is old and drunk with power.

The other quandary that confronts Jones is a certain maddening quarterback, who will be going into the last year of his contract in 2013….

I SAW Cowboys QB Tony Romo throw three interceptions – the same amount that he’d given up in the previous eight games combined.

Oh, Tony.

So much for a rare great December for Romo.  The topper came late in the fourth quarter when Dallas was trailing Washington 21-18.  Redskins LB Rob Jackson showed blitz before the snap but then dropped back into pass coverage.  Romo is so numb-skulled sometimes.  NBC Analyst Cris Collinsworth – as have many others in the media – said during the broadcast that Romo didn’t see Jackson, but I call bullshit.  The linebacker had clearly released into coverage before Romo started winding up to throw.  Nonetheless,  with his eyes looking in that very direction – Romo lofted up a gift of an interception – the sort of throw that indicated he did see the linebacker and tried to put up an ill-advised touch pass over the defender’s head.  Head coach Jason Garrett verified this theory during the postgame press conference.

If you’re a quarterback, you just don’t throw that ball.  Sometimes people just can’t help themselves.  Romo is one of those people, and all the stats on the world can’t hide it anymore.  They never could.

NFL Network analyst (and former Cowboy) Deion Sanders asked a good question during Gameday Final in response to the typical wait-and-see approach of Romo:

“When we gonna get to the good part?”

I SAW, in defense of Cowboys QB Tony Romo – which feels icky since I’m a Romophobic and all – his receiving corps was beset by injuries Sunday night.  Wideouts Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Dwayne Harris each suffered in-game injuries that kept them off the field at times.  That’s no defense for the aforementioned fourth quarter interception, though.

I SAW Redskins QB Robert Griffin III cap an amazing season by leading his team into the playoffs.

How many quarterbacks can run for 63 yards on a bad wheel?  RG3 was clearly not his usual track-star self on Sunday night as he recuperates from an injured left knee, but he still struck enough fear in the Dallas D to open up the offense.  Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan aptly protected Griffin with a grind ’em out running game, lessening the QB’s statistical impact.  But his leadership and presence aren’t to be overlooked.

A few statistical nuggets for you to put in your pipe and smoke:

RG3 set the NFL rookie record for yards rushing by a QB, with 815.

He also topped Ben Roethlisberger’s previous mark of 98.1 (in 2004) for rookie passer rating, with 102.4.  (Seattle’s Russell Wilson did so as well, with a rating of 100.0.)

Griffin also cleaned the record book of Charlie Batch’s name by having just 1.3 percent of his passes intercepted in his rookie season.  (Batch had 1.98 percent picked off.

More so than other positions, the starting quarterback on a team is responsible for his offense’s turnovers – especially in a ball-handling, fake-oriented offense like the one employed by Washington.  This season the Redskins set a franchise record for the fewest giveaways in a season, with 14, even less than the 1982 strike year edition that played only nine regular season games.  (STATS LLC)

In an unprecedentedly deep rookie crop, those might be the numbers – and the commanding aura – that win Offensive Rookie Of The Year.

But RG3 didn’t do it alone….

I SAW that if people haven’t yet recognized the huge contribution made by Redskins RB Alfred Morris, they had better do so now.  I’ve used a word during previous weeks to describe the rookie tailback’s role in the Redskin offense: catalyst.

Indeed, on Sunday night Morris was the table-setter for his offense.  His season-high 33 carries gave him 200 yards on the ground Sunday, and the last yard came on the goal line TD that sealed the game.

Trivia bomb:

Morris became the first player in NFL history with 200 yards and 3 TD rushing against Dallas.  He is also just the sixth rookie to put up those stats in general since the merger.  Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin also did it this year, but check out the man whom I consider to be this year’s MVP, Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson:

Rookies with 200 Rush Yards and 3 Rush TD Since 1970

PLAYER YEAR TEAM
Alfred Morris 2012 Redskins
Doug Martin 2012 Buccaneers
Adrian Peterson 2007 Vikings
Adrian Peterson 2007 Vikings
Mike Anderson 2000 Broncos
Corey Dillon 1997 Bengals
Curt Warner 1983 Seahawks

(ESPN Stats & Information)

Shout-out to the other Curt Warner, who joins Chris Warren as the good, but forgotten tailbacks in Northwestern lore.

Morris set a franchise single-season record with 1,613 rushing yards, surpassing dress-up jackass Clinton Portis’ 1,516 in 2005.

The most likeable things about Morris the player might be his humility.  After his mammoth game on Sunday, Morris told the Associated Press, “I’m never a star.  I’ll never be a star.  Other people might think I’m a star, but I’m just Alfred.”

I SAW Redskins CB DeAngelo Hall provide this week’s Duh, Really? Moment, when he said this about his first-year teammates, QB Robert Griffin III and RB Alfred Morris to the Associated Press: “These aren’t ordinary rookies.”

Can’t we say that about a lot of rooks this season?  (More on that to come later from TFQ.)

I SAW a great, unsung job being done by Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.  It wouldn’t be the first time for Haslett.  The man generally comes into a place and whips a defense into shape for a time.  This season Haslett turned a unit that lost arguably its two best strong side players – LB Brian Orakpo and DE Adam Carriker – to injury and managed to regroup to make it to the playoffs.  Sunday’s blitzkrieg that Haslett unleashed upon the Dallas offense was a telling moment behind all of Washington’s offensive headlines.

I SAW PROPS to Redskins LB London Fletcher for leading his team in tackles for the 14th straight season, as pointed out by the NBC broadcast.  Most unsung linebacker of his era?

I SAW a strange trend looming for the Redskins next weekend….

Trivia Bomb:

When the Redskins host the Seahawks next Sunday it will make three straight playoff games in Washington’s history that they have faced Seattle.  Weird.  The ’Skins lost the previous two games – in 2005 and ’07.  (STATS LLC)

I SAW Redskins rookie QB Robert Griffin III show some of his down-to-earth attitude during head coach Mike Shanahan’s Wednesday press conference, when he assumed the role of reporter and questioned his coach.

At times, RG3’s professional, yet boyish confidence reminds me of Joe Montana or Eli Manning- especially with the pranks.  This one is cute.  I love the “but you didn’t call me” retort by the head coach.

Chicago (10-6) wins @ Detroit (4-12), 26-24

I SAW The Bears beat the Lions on Sunday, but it didn’t matter because the Vikings stole Chicago’s playoff berth later in the day by winning against Green Bay.

As mentioned above in Away from the game(s), the Bears have now missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six years – and the players lost their beloved head coach Lovie Smith for it.  In some senses, the proof is in the pudding: Chicago became just the second team in the 12-team playoff format to miss the postseason after a 7-1 start.  (STATS LLC – the other team: Washington in 1996.)

This rivalry has been a microcosm of a weird season for the Bears.  They caused four turnovers by the Lions on Sunday, but went 0-for-6 on passes for the end zone thereafter.  (STATS LLC)  In two games this season Chicago has a turnover margin of +8 against Detroit, but has only managed to outscore them by 8 points.  Obviously there is more to explaining the Bears’ failed season, but an inability to put up the points deserving of the efforts of their ball-hawing defense goes a long way towards doing so.

I SAW the Lions finish the 2012 season with an 8-game losing streak.  Head coach Jim Schwartz must be very well liked by his superiors, because after two seasons of player outbursts – on and off the field – and one season of plentiful disappointment, it’s impressive that Schwartz has avoided the coaching hot seat.

I SAW Lions WR Calvin Johnson catch five passes for 72 yards, falling 36 yards short of 2,000 receiving yards in a season.  (He had already broken Jerry Rice’s NFL record of 1,848 last week.)  Megatron is unquestionably the king of the wideout jungle, but he fell on his own sword by dropping too many passes this season.  Sunday was no different, when, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Johnson dropped two passes that traveled 35 total yards.  It’s safe to say Megatron could have legged out at least one extra yard on either of those plays had he caught the ball, which would have given him two thousand.  But he didn’t.  I like it when an elite player gets some frustration to carry over to next season; it could mean even bigger and better things…. Could Megatron evolve into Galvatron in 2013?

Galvatron

(Hasbro)

I SAW that the Bears need to adopt that same attitude, but in a good way: Find ways to get QB Jay Cutler more downfield opportunities.  A healthy Alshon Jeffery at WR should go a long way in helping bring this about.  The rookie missed seven starts this season with leg injuries.

Chicago’s offensive fortunes remain to be seen until a new coaching staff is in place, but people need to stop blaming Cutler for his team’s shortcomings.  Given the way the offensive line played this season, the Nutler was a virtual hero in the pocket.

I SAW Lions QB Matt Stafford finish the season with 4,967 passing yards – 33 short of consecutive 5,000-yard seasons.

In stark contrast to last season, more was less for Stafford and Detroit’s passing game.  Thanks to a turnstile defense and a lack of commitment to the running game (what happened to RB Mikel Leshoure?  He looked quite good in his season debut…), the Lions spent seventeen weeks as arguably the most one-sided offense in the NFL.  Case in point: Stafford threw a total of 727 passes – shattering Drew Bledsoe’s 1994 mark of 691 for the most in league history.  Wow.  Is there a throwing arm in more need of ice?

Maybe in the offseason Stafford should train while he drives, Over The Top-style….

Over The Top

(Warner Bros.)

Minnesota (10-6) wins vs. Green Bay (11-5), 37-34

I SAW the Vikings rebound from a 9-23 record over the last two seasons by earning their first playoff berth since 2009.

It’s been….Aw, hell.  Let’s just get to the story of the day/season/year, and all of the crazy numbers that come with it….

I SAW Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson provide us with one of the greatest clutch performances in league history.  Hopefully our minds won’t go on tilt like an overworked pinball machine parsing through the stats I’ll list below, but first a few words about a certain award:

TFQ’s full slate of regular season awards is forthcoming (followed later in February by our NFL Upside Down Awards), but the MVP is worth mentioning this week because Peterson may have clinched it for himself Sunday in Minnesota

I had expected the Vikings to contend for the worst record in the league this season.  Their roster is paper-thin and very low on talent.  To make matters worse, they lost their only other viable scoring threat, WR/KR Percy Harvin in Week 9.  Without Harvin, at least 8 or nine in the box all day was what awaited the man nicknamed “All Day.”  All Peterson did was carry his team into the playoffs on the night of the one-year anniversary of reconstructive surgery on his left knee that he tore in a game on Christmas Eve.

The 2012 holiday season has been considerably more rewarding for AP.  Minnesota won their final four games and finished it off by beating the Packers for the first time in six games.  During the critical win streak Peterson rushed for 651 yards – an average of 162.75 yards per game.  The mind-blowing numbers All-Day has put up are plenty.  But Sunday’s 199-yard was more about aura than statistics.  With each passing week, the whispers about Peterson’s workload on his recovering knee increased.  How much more could he give the Vikings, given his 314 carries coming into the game and a sore abdominal muscle?  A career-high 34 carries – that’s how much.  And if he tired at all, Peterson certainly didn’t show it.  As Minny and Green Bay exchanged blow after blow to set up a 34-34 tie and a Vikings’ second down at the Green Bay 37-yard line with just 24 seconds left in the game, the sixth-year back ripped off a 26-yard, juke-filled run to set up Blair Walsh’s winning chip shot field goal and put the Vikes into the playoffs.

That’s the play of the year from a guy who’s been providing candidates for them on what seems like a weekly basis.  In as close-fought and deep an MVP race as I can remember, that moment makes the difference.

It would be nice to see the award take a hiatus from its QB-centric tendencies this year.  If it doesn’t, then the name for the MVP award should be officially changed to MVPQB, because if Peterson can’t win it after the season he’s had – on the team he’s on – what running back ever could?  As Sports Illustrated’s Don Banks puts it when arguing for Peterson’s season: “If that’s not the definition of what a most valuable player does, then we view the award from different vantage points.”

Consecutive last-place finishes in the division followed by a playoff berth.  With no other consistent reason other than one man.  Case closed.

But just in case, this stat clears up any confusion about how valuable Peterson is to Minnesota: He averaged as many yards per carry (6.0) than QB Christian Ponder averaged per pass attempt (6.08).  On a playoff team with the 16th-ranked defense overall.  Think about that.

I SAW PROPS to Vikings RB Adrian Peterson.

PROPSPROPSPROPS.  Quadruple PROPS.

He needed one of these shirts for Christmas:

punisher shirt

(Marvel Entertainment)

A full appraisal of Peterson’s season might require more charts than a lame-ass Power Point presentation in business school.  But let’s try to take a look, albeit not comprehensively – it’s just too epic.

Time for a stat orgy.

Peterson’s 2,097 yards fell just short of Eric Dickerson’s NFL single-season record of 2,105, set in 1984.  He also became just the seventh player in NFL history with 2,000 rushing yards in one season.

Players With 2,000 Rushing Yards, NFL History

Player Year Team Rush Yards
Eric Dickerson 1984 Rams 2,105
Adrian Peterson 2012 Vikings 2,097
Jamal Lewis 2003 Ravens 2,066
Barry Sanders 1997 Lions 2,053
Terrell Davis 1998 Broncos 2,008
Chris Johnson 2009 Titans 2,006
O.J. Simpson 1973 Bills 2,003*

*- I might say this every time his 2,000-yard season comes up because it’s not mentioned enough: Simpson did it with a 14-game schedule.

The Vikings’ prized tailback also finished out the year in true Minnesotan fashion – by devouring opponents like the wood-chipper in Fargo.  According to Elias Sports Bureau, Peterson averaged 172.2 rush yards per game in December, which is the highest single-month average in league history (minimum: 4 games played in a month).  The company AP keeps in this regard is just as impressive as the 2,000-yard club:

Most Rushing Yards Per Game In A Month, NFL History

PLAYER YEAR TEAM Yards/Game Month
Adrian Peterson 2012 Vikings 172.2 December*
Walter Payton 1977 Bears 170.8 November
Eric Dickerson 1984 Rams 170.0 November
Jim Brown 1958 Browns 161.0 October

*-What’s super-cool and helpful for his MVP consideration, is that Peterson broke this record in December, in the thick of a playoff race – which he won by carrying his team.  (See above.)

There’s no need to further prove Peterson’s power and/or tackle-breaking ability, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.  With that in mind, All Day rushed for a ridiculous 1,019 yards after initial contact.  That’s the highest single-season total for a player over the last four seasons.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

Most Rush Yards After Contact In A Single Season Since 2009

PLAYER TEAM YEAR YARDS AFTER CONTACT
Adrian Peterson Vikings 2012 1,019
Maurice Jones-Drew Jaguars 2011 785
Adrian Peterson Vikings 2009 729
Doug Martin Buccaneers 2012 683
Maurice Jones-Drew Jaguars 2009 682

PROPS to MoJo and AP.  You know who the beasts are when they have two seasons on this list.

PROPS to rookie Doug Martin for making this list too.

But we all know by now that the real beast is Peterson.  Those 1,019 yards after first contact would lead seventeen other teams in total rushing yards!  Unbelievable.  I find myself intimidated in my living room, just watching him run.

I SAW that there’s still even more crazy shit to point out about the regular season of Vikings RB Adrian Peterson….

Trivia Bomb:

Peterson averaged an even 6 yards per carry on the season – an unthought-of number for a back with over 300 carries.  Or is it?  I took a look:

Barry Sanders averaged 6.1 on 335 carries in 1997 en route to 2,053 rushing yards.

O.J. Simpson averaged 6.0 on 332 carries in 1973 – the year he rushed for 2,003 yards.

Those are the only two backs to average over 6 yards per carry with 300+ attempts.

The closest in recent years is Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles, who had 6.4, but only 230 carries.

More perspective:

Jim Brown averaged 6.4 in 1963, but only carried the ball 291 times.

Walter Payton never averaged more than 5.5 yards per carry in a season.

The closest Earl Campbell ever came was 5.2.

Dickerson himself never came closer than 5.6.  (That was in his record-setting season.)

Impressive.  Most impressive.

Hall Of Fame running back Marshall Faulk knows something about dominating opponents.  On NFL Gameday Final Faulk called Peterson, “a man among boys.

I remember about eight years ago, when Peterson was in college at Oklahoma, telling a friend – who is a die-hard Bears fan – that I hadn’t seen anyone run with the ferocity and grace that Peterson has since Walter Payton.  That friend might agree about that now….

Peterson pops out of his cuts so hard that his best runs are like Jiffy Pop…. He’s just so…so long and strong and supple….. it’s like the power in his sweeping limbs occupies more space than seems possible…he comes at defenses with a…whoa.  It’s like Adrian Peterson is from some sort of freaky movie creature.  He’s a Spider Panther.

I SAW cause to wonder, as mentioned above in Away from the game(s), whether or not Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson can muster up more big games to carry his team farther – this time deeper into the postseason.  One thing is for sure: The Packers will feel the need to save face in Saturday’s rubber match against the Vikings since Peterson has run for the fourth-most yards against an opponent in a single season in NFL history against them.

Most Rushing Yards vs. A Single Opponent In One Season, NFL History

Player Year Opponent Yards
Jamal Lewis 2003 Browns 500
O.J. Simpson 1973 Patriots 469
LaDainian Tomlinson 2003 Raiders 430
Adrian Peterson 2012 Packers 409
Emmitt Smith 1993 Eagles 409
Barry Sanders 1994 Buccaneers 403
Priest Holmes 1998 Bengals 400

(NFL Network broadcast)

A marathon of a season.  A balls-out playoff game after a career-high number of carries – and this weekend’s game is on a day’s less rest.  Giv’r.

I SAW no need to blame Packers QB Aaron Rodgers for his team’s loss Sunday.  Green Bay ended up as the third seed in the NFC, and in the process saw its 5-game winning streak against the Vikings come to an end.  However, if the Pack can corral Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, Rodgers should take them to a playoff win.  Rodgers dominated the Minny defense on Sunday, going 28-for 40, with 365 yards, 4 TDs, no INTs and a 131.8 passer rating.  That’s just par for the course: According to STATS LLC, Rodgers has 24 touchdowns, just 4 interceptions and 70 percent of his passes completed in 10 career starts against Minnesota.

In fact, excelling has been par for the course for Rodgers….

I SAW Packers QB Aaron Rodgers continue a run of excellence that, in the NFL’s current “Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame” climate that surrounds the quarterback position, goes quite unappreciated.   It was mentioned during the NBC postgame broadcast that Rodgers is now the second QB in league history to have four consecutive seasons with a passer rating of 100 or better.  The other – Hall Of Famer Steve Young.  In the last two years, the Packers pivot has 84 TDs and 14 INTs.  But he’s not the darling of the league.

 

I SAW Vikings QB Christian Ponder go all good on us.

Ponder’s 120.2 passer rating on Sunday was the highest in his short career.  More importantly, he overcame his dink-and-dunk limitations – for now.  Coming into Sunday, Ponder had completed a league-worst 31.4 percent of passes thrown 15 yards downfield or farther.  Against Green Bay he tied a season high with four completions on such throws.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

Two throws gave hope for Vikings fans that want the second-year quarterback to come into his own in the pros.  With the game tied at 27 in the fourth quarter, Ponder made a sick in-the-bucket throw to WR Jarius Wright for 65 yards en route to a tiebreaking score.  It was the second-best throw he made during the game.  The best one came on the TD that ended that drive, when Ponder rolled left and drilled one into a tight spot to WR Michael Jenkins.

It’s possible that Vikings RB Adrian Peterson could carry the day in the Wild Card round.  But he did that on Sunday, and Minnesota still needed Ponder to come through with some big plays.  He’s apparently dealing with a bad elbow, so keep an eye on that.

I SAW the Packers finish the season without a 1,000-yard receiver since 2003.  But that was purely due to injury; now Green Bay takes the field with wideouts Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb healthy for the first time since September.  Look out.

Jennings went off on Sunday, with 8 grabs for 120 yards and 2 TDs.  That makes sense, because he thrives in the slot – which he was able to play since Nelson was back from injury and able to compliment Jones out wide.  Now that Cobb is back it will be interesting to see how head coach Mike McCarthy uses them all.

New York Giants (9-7) win vs. Philadelphia (4-12), 42-7

I SAW the Giants get eliminated from the playoffs.  A year ago they were able to squeak into the postseason with nine wins.  Not so this season.

New York did all they could to help themselves by thrashing Philly, but moments later in Detroit the Bears won and slammed the door on the defending champ’s razor-thin chances to make it into January.

Of course, the fate of the G-Men was sealed before Week 17.  After starting the season 6-2, they lost five of their last eight games.  The real killers came in Week 15 and 16 when the Giants lost by a combined 67-14 to the Falcons and Ravens.

I SAW that for all of their struggles on offense, the Giants were undone by their defense.  It ranked 31st overall, and never generated the sustained pass pressure that it’s known for.  Bottom line: When New York’s offense couldn’t carry them, they lost the game.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Giants are 9-0 when they score at least 21 points, and 0-7 when they score less than that.

I SAW another goodnight to the defending NFL Champions.

Trivia Bomb/Whoopee Cushion:

This marks the seventh straight season that the Super Bowl champion has failed to win a playoff game the following year.

I SAW the Andy Reid era come to an unceremonious close.

But the Eagles’ head coach’s last game began in fitting fashion.  Reid chose to attempt an onside kick to open Sunday’s game.  It marked the fifth time during his tenure as head coach in Philly that Reid has tried an onside kick on the opening kickoff of a game.  The Eagles were successful on three of them, including Sunday.

Otherwise, the Eagles played poorly enough to provide a disproportionate ending compared to Reid’s positive influence in Philly, and it started at the QB position….

I SAW Eagles QB Michael Vick continue to prove himself to be lacking of the sufficient mental acuity to play quarterback in the NFL.

Prior to Sunday’s game, Vick told Zach Berman of the Philadelphia Inquirer (via NFL.com) that one of the reasons he hasn’t played well during the last two seasons is his team’s change of offensive line coaches.  When head coach Andy Reid made the now-infamous decision to move Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator, Harman Mudd was brought in to oversee the O-line.  Mudd brought with him a new scheme – and new protection calls.  In 2011 Vick was asked to make those calls himself, but that didn’t go so well.  As a result C Jason Kelse was trained to make the calls this season, but he was lost for the year in Week 2.

Really, Vick?  You can’t learn new protection calls with a whole offseason to prepare?  This season was his tenth season as a pro, but apparently in two years Vick can’t comfortably learn the same things that rookies have been able to handle this season, or Peyton Manning pulled off while learning a new offense with a new team.

This is reminiscent of 2006, when I remember reading in Sports Illustrated about Vick being given permission to call audibles for the first time in his career.  Understand that 2006 was Vick’s sixth season in the NFL.  What does it say about a guy who has the physical tools to do whatever he wants on a football field, but isn’t allowed to make independent decisions about what play should be run against a blitz for five seasons?  It says he’s not smart enough to run a pro offense year in, year out.

Imagine it, the Falcons coaches at the time saying to Vick, “Son, you just focus on running the play.  We know what you saw out there.  Fine.  Just run the play.”  Five season into a career.  Inexcusable.  Just like the excuse that learning new protection calls has hindered Vick’s play after a full season of using them.

Maybe Vick’s daftness was what led him to throw an awful interception to Giants S Stevie Brown early in the game, with no eligible receiver within view during the live broadcast.  Either way, if Vick hasn’t figured basic concepts out by now, when will he?

I SAW Giants QB Eli Manning end a maddening season in typically maddening fashion: by throwing five touchdowns in a game – the most for a Giant since Phil Simms in 1980 – that turned out to be meaningless in terms of getting his team into the postseason.

Manning fell 52 yards short of four consecutive seasons with 4,000 passing yards, and likely lost at least several members of the camp that supports his “I’m an elite quarterback” claim.  Mind you, in Eli’s defense, there was no defense being played in New York, nor was there a reliable running back to balance out the offense, with Ahmad Bradshaw in and out of the lineup (again) with injuries, and David Wilson taking several months to get out of head coach Tom Coughlin’s doghouse.

I SAW the lone bright spot on the Giants defense: S Stevie Brown.  The third-year pro was signed after a season in Indianapolis, and was expected to play a minimal role in New York’s defensive backfield.  Instead, once injuries once again plagued the Giants DBs, Brown seized the opportunity.  His eight interceptions this season are tied for second-best in the NFL, and on Sunday his 48-yard return after a pick of Eagles QB Michael Vick gave him 307 interception return yards to extend his franchise single-season record.  (STATS LLC)  Imagine how badly the G-Men’s fortunes might have gone without Brown’s several clutch plays.

I SAW the need to put Eagles WR DeSean Jackson on a milk carton.  The usually dangerous wideout finished the season with 45 receptions for 700 yards and 2 touchdowns – all career lows.  I know the QB position was a bit of a weakness this season, but Jackson failed to get separation on cornerbacks often enough to help his team.

I SAW reason prevail – finally! – when the Eagles benched CB Nnamdi Asomugha in the second half of Sunday’s game.  Why it took that long is anyone’s guess.  I’ve never seen a top-tier CB’s skills deteriorate as rapidly as Ayatollah Asomugha.  He simply can’t keep up with any receivers anymore.

ayatollah assahola

(FOX Network)

Tampa Bay (7-9) wins @ Atlanta (13-3), 22-17

I SAW Flacons head coach Mike Smith elect to play out Sunday’s game at full capacity, even though the result could have no impact on their playoff position.  (Atlanta clinched home field advantage until the Super Bowl in Week 16.)

In my opinion, coaches in this position are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.  On one hand, you rest your key players to avoid injury, but risk losing momentum as a result.  On the other hand, you play everyone to keep the team sharp before a week off with a first-round bye, but risk injury.  In Smith’s case he elected to go with the latter, and injury is what he got.  CB Dunta Robinson left the game with a head injury, but is apparently not going to miss his team’s next game, in two weeks.  However, DE John Abraham suffered what looked like a serious ankle sprain, and his status is uncertain.

Abraham essentially is the Falcons’ pass rush.  If he can’t play, or is significantly hindered by his ankle (and after seeing the replay, I’m not sure how he can’t be), it will be a huge blow to Atlanta.  Critics that have been circling the Falcons, just waiting for that one-and-done performance are just waiting to pounce on Smith – just like they would pounce on him if he’d have rested everybody and his team had looked rusty in the playoffs.

Like I said, damned if you do….

I SAW Atlanta struggle against the Tampa Bay defense.  No disrespect to RB Jacquizz Rodgers, but when he leads the team in receiving with eight catches for 50 yards, and rushing with 28 yards on five carries, well, that’s not good for a team supposedly trying to win the game with its starters on the field against a slumping team.

Once again, RB Michael Turner proved to be little more than a self-Burner, with a 17-yard TD run…and then just one yard on his five other carries.  (Associated Press)  To be fair, Tampa Bay boasts the best rushing defense in the NFL, but Turner has had far too many 1- or 2-yard gains this season.

What is more of a concern for the Falcons is that QB Matt Ryan could only manage 238 yards – at a poor 5.4 average per throw – and just one TD pass against the league’s worst passing defense in terms of yardage allowed.  Ryan started the season on a tear, leading the early MVP discussions, but since then he’s had a few duds, such as Sunday’s.  That has to make Atlanta fans nervous as they pray for their team’s first playoff win with Ryan at QB in four tries.

I’ve said it numerous times this season, but it bears repeating: The Falcons’ regular season success doesn’t amount to shit if they can’t get the playoff monkey off of their collective back.  Now this team has two weeks to try and pretend that monkey isn’t making like a pink elephant in the middle of the room.  Heading into the bye with a loss to an inferior division foe isn’t a good prelude.

I SAW the Buccaneers snap a five-game losing streak to at least get out of their tailspin to finish the season.  That 6-4 start while in playoff contention is now a distant memory, though.  At least they avenged the Week 12 loss to the Falcons that started the slide.

The most reassuring thing that happened for Tampa on Sunday was that their two offensive stars got back on track after a stretch of lousy games:

Rookie RB Doug Martin ran for 142 yards after having averaged just 46 yards per game in four of the last five contests.  Martin was a godsend to his team, which got a steal at the 31st pick of the 2012 draft.  I had mentioned in earlier weeks that head coach Greg Schiano might want to limit Martin’s carries as the season wore on, to prevent the tailback from hitting a rookie wall.  Upon reflection, Martin only had 8 games with 20 carries or more, and none with 30.  However, his total of 319 attempts is a tad high.  Fellow first-year man Alfred Morris had 335 carries for the Redskins, but he doesn’t play as physical a style as Martin does.  For reference: Vikings RB Adrian Peterson – a banger in his own right – had just 238 carries in his rookie year.  The most attempts ever by a rookie?  Hall Of Famer Eric Dickerson’s mind-boggling 390.  But Dickerson wasn’t exactly the most physical runner.  In fact, the speedy tailback had a reputation for running for the sidelines faster than a side judge.

After throwing back-to-back four interception games, QB Josh Freeman at least didn’t suck.  He didn’t have a great game, but had a justifiable stat line given the fact that Martin and the ground game were controlling the tempo against a capable pass defense.  His two TD passes on Sunday gave him 78 for his career – on more than Vinny Testaverde’s previous franchise record.  What an awful QB history for the Bucs, when Freeman can have 3-plus so-so seasons and already have that distinction.  As was the case this season, Tampa’s offensive success in 2013 will hinge on his play.

I SAW PROPS to TE Tony Gonzalez for becoming the first NFL tight end to have five seasons with at least 90 receptions.  If we are to take him at his word – which at one point downgraded the odds of him retiring after this season from “99 percent” to “95 percent” – the countdown to the end of Gonzo’s career has begun.

Indianapolis (11-5) wins @ Houston (12-4), 28-16

I SAW the Colts finish the second greatest one-year improvement in league history by winning nine more games than in the 2011 season.  (The Dolphins improved to 11 wins in 2008 after going 1-15 the previous year.)

In a news report that has gone under the radar, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was caught trying to slip some leukemia into Jason Garrett’s lunch in an effort to try and rejuvenate his team.  (It turns out that the cancer found Garrett too boring to latch on to.)

Seriously, though.  Indianapolis just finished one of the most unique and inspiring regular seasons in sports history, losing their head coach Chuck Pagano to cancer treatment during their Week 4 bye.  All this team – that had won just 2 games the previous season, and has an overhauled roster full of first year players – did was win 10 of their remaining 13 games to blow all of our minds and make the playoffs.

It’s safe to say that, unless GM Ryan Grigson can figure out some way to keep him, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has earned himself a head coaching job for the great work he did filling in for Pagano.  Who would have guessed when Pagano left the team that Indy would end up just one game behind 12-4 Houston?  The only knock on Arians’ potential as a head coach is that he walked into a situation that had player motivation built into it, with all of the love for the once-ailing Pagano (his cancer is in remission).  But that’s looking for a flaw where there may be none.  Arians did a fantastic job helping Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger grow into the pivot that he is, and he’s done an even faster job of developing rookie Andrew Luck – while having to step into Pagano’s shoes for much of the season.  This must feel like a vindicating season, after Pittsburgh tossed Arians to the scrap heap and then failed to make the postseason.

Could Arians win Coach Of The Year?  I wonder, who else was better?

I SAW the Texans lose three of their last four games.

Trivia Bomb:

The only team in NFL history to lose three of four to end the regular season and go on to win the Super Bowl is the Saints in 2009.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

Just sayin’.

So, it can be done.  But Houston’s chances of making it to Super Sunday don’t look as good as they did a month ago, after getting outscored by a total of 45 points in their last four games.  In early October, I had mentioned that the one kink in the then-undefeated Texans was their defensive backfield.  Now those DBs aren’t just a kink – they’re a disaster.  Colts QB Andrew Luck passed for just 332 total yards against them in 2 of the last three weeks, but was able to find open receiver on numerous third down plays.  The Texans actually rank third in the NFL, allowing just 33 percent of opponents’ third down attempts to be converted.  But it seems like every third down they give up is in blown coverage, and more so as the season went on.  Houston can try to control the clock all they want in the playoffs, but will have a hard time doing so if their DBs can’t tighten up their coverage and get the other team’s offense off the field.

At any rate, this is a team that fell from the number one seed in the AFC to number three in a matter of hours.  Now the Texans must play an extra playoff game that they weren’t expecting – against a very confident Cincinnati team that wants revenge for a first-round loss to Houston last year.

I SAW that the Texans collapsed in all three phases Sunday against the Colts.  Defensively, they allowed a 60 percent completion rate on third down. Offensively, they turned the ball over twice and lost the time of possession battle against a team with no running game.  On special teams they allowed a guy who wasn’t in the league a month ago to return a kickoff 101 yards for a score.

But perhaps the biggest concern for Houston was that QB Matt Schaub looked bad again.  Schaub has failed to put up a passer rating better than 72.1 in three of his last four games.  Over the Texans’ last four games, he has undergone a serious regression in terms of the deep ball as well:

Matt Schaub Passing 20+ Yards Downfield, 2012

First 12 Games Last 4 Games
Comp-Att 12-35 3-13
TD-INT 5-2 0-3

(ESPN Stats & Information)

Note that Schaub has thrown as many picks as completions when looking 20 yards downfield of longer over his last four games.  More specifically, Schaub is 1-for-5 with one interception targeting WR Andre Johnson in such situations over that span.

Both of Schaub’s interceptions on Sunday were made possible by hugely inaccurate throws on equally bad decisions.  He’s been proving that if defenses can take away Houston’s run game he can’t get the job done.  You can bet that the Bengals’ defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will be bringing his safeties up, daring Schaub to win the game with his arm.  The QB will have to do considerably better than he has in recent weeks to lead his team to a win this weekend.

I SAW Colts QB Andrew Luck break Peyton Manning’s franchise rookie record for completions in a season, with 339.  (Sam Bradford holds the record, with 354.)  He also finished the year with 23 TD passes – third all-time for a rookie.  (Associated Press)

The first overall pick of the 2012 draft has played great this year.  He’s had six games with 300 passing yards – one of which was for 433.  But he’s also had three 3-pick games as well.  It’s too early in his team’s rebuilding to think too much about Luck’s propensity for bad decisions this season.  Let’s wait until he has more pieces around him, and thus less pressure to do it all.

I SAW Houston DE J.J. Watt have a spaghetti western-esque Sunday in his quest for the single-season sack record (Watt needed 2.5 to pass Michael Strahan’s mark of 22.5).

The Good:

On the first play of the game Sunday, Watt broke through the Indy O-line and almost took the handoff himself, resulting in a tackle for loss.

The Bad:

Watt appeared to get a half sack during the first half, when he and a teammate collided with QB Andrew Luck to force a fumble.  However, the infamous Tuck Rule was applied upon review, and thus the play was ruled an incomplete pass, and thus Watt’s half sack taken away.

The Insane:

The Colts offensive line improved upon their performance against Watt two weeks ago by holding him sackless. (He had three of them in the first meeting.)

Or did they?

Watt had four tackles for a loss on Sunday, his most in a game in 2012.  According to SI.com, that raised his total of tackles for loss or no gain to 39.  He also batted down another pass, giving him a ridiculous league-high total of passes defensed of 16.  Those numbers are supposed to be impossible for a defensive end that is supposed to just occupy blockers in a 3-4 scheme.  Look out, Cincy.

I SAW PROPS to Texans WR Andre Johnson for joining Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison as the only players in NFL history with at least three 1,500-yard receiving seasons.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

His 12 grabs on Sunday for 141 yards also gave him a third season with over 100 receptions and 1,500 yards.  Only Harrison has as many.  (STATS LLC)

Cincinnati (10-6) wins vs. Baltimore (10-6), 23-17

I SAW Ravens LB Ray Lewis announce his retirement this week, effective after Baltimore’s playoff run.  He surprised the media and fans in a press conference, saying,

“This will be my last ride.”

The best all-around linebacker in NFL history deserves his own separate post, so stay tuned for it at TFQ, sometime after the Ravens’ season ends.  For now, I’ll just say that Lewis’ timing makes for the best motivational material for his team as they prepare to face an equally motivated team in the playoffs: Chuck Pagano’s Colts.  Too bad Lewis can’t play quarterback…it would be tragic if his Hall Of Fame career ends with a shit-filled bed, courtesy the shaky Joe Flacco.

I SAW a regular-season finale that, more than any other game on Sunday, had the feel of a preseason game.  Case in point: Joint Tyrod Taylor and Brad Gradkowski sightings (the backup QBs for Baltimore and Cincy, respectively).

Neither team had much to gain from playing the majority of their starters for the whole game, so many players got some rest heading into Wild Card weekend.  For example, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh pulled an anti-Mike Smith (see: Tampa Bay wins @ Atlanta, 22-17) and yanked many starters after the first two series, including QB Joe Flacco and RB Ray Rice.

For once there was a logical reason for Rice not getting at least 20 touches!

I SAW the Bengals win for the seventh time in their last eight games.

Is this Cincinnati’s time to live?  Could this finally be the January of Marv?  (Cincy head coach Marvin Lewis, that is.)  Lewis is 0-3 in the postseason since taking over the Bengals –  a team with a forgettable playoff past in recent decades….

Trivia Bomb:

The last time Cincy won a playoff game was in the Wild Card round against Houston.  The Houston Oilers – in 1990.

The Bengals warmed up for the playoffs by beating the archrival Steelers and Ravens in straight weeks – two teams they had been 0-6 against over the past two seasons.  And now they get to face a staggering Texans team to try and break their postseason hex.  To do so they’ll likely need a big game from their underrated D….

I SAW a Bengals defense that is as under the radar as Eli Manning’s subpar regular season play throughout the years.

On Sunday, Cincinnati had four sacks, which gives them a franchise record 51 for the season – second-most in the NFL this season.  (Denver and St. Louis each have 52.)

This unit is gathering steam, too, scoring more touchdowns over the past two weeks than Cincy’s offense.  It’s lead by DT Geno Atkins, who has been a much more disruptive force than his 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles indicate.  In fact, not since the days of Cortez Kennedy and Warren Sapp has an interior linemen caused so much trouble in backfields.  It doesn’t hurt when you’re likely the strongest pound-for-pound player in the league.

I SAW the need to keep an eye on the tight hamstring of Bengals RB Benjarvus Green-Ellis.  He is the only productive running back that Cincy has, and one does NOT want to be a one-dimensional offense against the unstoppable J.J. Watt and company.

I SAW Ravens K Justin Tucker join fellow first-year kickers Greg Zuerlein (Rams) and Blair Walsh (Vikings) in an impressive rookie class.  Tucker’s 90.9 percent success rate is an NFL record for a rookie kicker.

Signing Tucker was clearly a good move after Billy Cundiff screwed them right in the Cundiff in last season’s AFC Championship when he shanked what would have been a chip shot field goal to end the game against the Patriots.

I SAW Bengals radio play-by-play man, Dan Hoard, note that QB Andy Dalton has thrown 35 TDs and 0 INTs in the red zone as a pro.  That’s pretty remarkable, but maybe Big Red should be taking some more risks.  In his two-year career he has 47 touchdown passes, which means that he’s only completed twelve successful scoring throws downfield longer than 20 yards.  If there’s a week for Dalton to change that trend it should be this one, against the Texans’ beleaguered defensive backfield.

Seattle (11-5) wins vs. St. Louis (7-8-1), 20-13

I SAW the Seahawks come within one Niners loss of winning their first NFC West crown since the Mike Holmgren era, in 2007.  Alas, Arizona couldn’t beat San Francisco on Sunday – gasp! – so Seattle has to settle for being arguably the most dangerous playoff team of the Group Of Twelve, with just the third 11-win season in franchise history.  (STATS LLC)

The ’Hawks were the lone undefeated team at home in the NFL this season, and have won seven of their last eight games – including a five-game win streak to end the regular season.

If the Seahawks didn’t feel like everything was going their way this season they must now, after one of their most valuable defensive players, CB Richard Sherman, had his four-game suspension lifted by the league.  This means that Seattle will have both members of their NFL-best cornerbacks available for the postseason, since Brandon Browner just finished serving his own four-game suspension.  Both players were served their sentences at the same time, and the ’Hawks couldn’t have played their cards better than they did, getting Browner’s suspension out of the way ASAP, and believing in Sherman’s case against the NFL.

As hot as Seattle is coming into January, they have the dubious task of playing the other hottest team in the NFC in the Wild Card round: Washington.  It should be a great game to close out the weekend.  One thing’s for sure: A rookie quarterback will win the game.

I SAW Seahawks QB Russell Wilson continue his amazing rookie season and make this year’s vote for Offensive Rookie Of The Year one of the tougher ones in recent memory.

I’ve read in a number of places that Wilson had a “quiet” game on Sunday.  If a fourth fourth-quarter or OT winning drive and a 136.3 passer rating is “quiet”, then such is the burden of one of the best rookie quarterbacks over the last several QB-centric years of successful rookies.

Sure, quiet.  Wilson has just one TD pass – which allowed him to finish the year tied for the rookie record for TD passes:

Most TD Passes BY A Rookie, NFL History

Player Year Team Pass TDs
Peyton Manning 2012 Colts 26
Russell Wilson 1998 Seahawks 26
Andrew Luck 2012 Colts 23
Charlie Conerly 1948 Giants 22

Wilson also joined Redskin Robert Griffin III as the only two rookies to finish the year with a passer rating of 100 or higher.  In fact, Wilson’s 100.0 rating is a franchise record.

Quiet.  Ho-hum.

The aforementioned game-winning score was a sign of the rookie’s preternatural team-first discipline.  On second-and-goal from the Rams’ 1-yard line with less than two minutes left in the game, Wilson rolled left, looking for a receiver he could connect with to set a new rookie record for passing TDs.  Instead of forcing a throw or trying to play another down, Wilson took what was given to him and ran the ball in for a touchdown.  I can’t wait to see him and the equally mature and gifted RG3 go at it on Sunday.

I SAW, speaking of rolling out, that Seattle’s coaching staff has done a great job tailoring the offense to fit QB Russell Wilson.

Like with Saint Drew Brees and others, one thing you do with a short QB is roll them out so that they can have a wider field of vision.  Wilson has already proven to be quite adept at throwing on the move.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, Wilson went 8-for-9 for 173 yards on throws outside of the pocket on Sunday.  Not only is this the most passing yards outside of the pocket over the last two seasons, but also it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.  Wilson came into Sunday with an NFL-best 57 completions outside of the pocket, and five TDs.

Again, so 173 yards passing while on the run is “quiet”?  Huh?

I SAW Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch rush for 100 yards on just 18 carries on Sunday.  Somehow Lynch still seems underrated.  He averaged 99.4 yards per game for the season.  He has ten 100-yard rushing games in the regular season.  He also averaged 5.0 yards on a workhorse-like 315 carries.

Everyone’s talking up Washington’s ground game against the Seattle’s run defense.  But Beast Mode has to face a Redskins defense that ranks 5th in the NFL against the run.  Something tells me Lynch might take that D down a peg this weekend….

I SAW the Rams blow a chance to finish with their first winning record since 2003, but they shouldn’t hang their heads.  Don’t take Sunday’s close score as a slight on Seattle for not beating St. Loo easily.  Sure, the Seahawks scored 150 points combined over the previous three games, but the Rams held that same offense to three points by halftime.  They also sacked Russell Wilson six times.  That’s the same Seattle offensive line that held Niners Aldon Smith & Co. to just one sack in Week 16.

The Rams are no laughing stock any more.  Head coach Jeff Fisher has done a great job turning this team around in just his first season in St. Louis, and Sunday’s loss was their only one all season in the Cold Tub Division, the NFC West.  That’s a big accomplishment for a team ahead of schedule in terms of rebuilding.

I SAW Rams DE Chris Long have three sacks Sunday, giving him 11.5 for the season.  In 2012 Long also had no tipped passes, no forced fumbles and only 32 combined tackles.  He has flashes in games – like Sunday’s – but needs to elevate his game to justify being taken second overall in the 2008 draft.

I SAW PROPS to Rams RB Steven Jackson for an eighth straight season with 1,000 rushing yards.  He’s only the sixth player in league history to accomplish the feat.

After the game, Jackson denied rumors that he will retire this year, which was welcome news.  If St. Louis were indeed turning a corner, it’d be a pity for Jackson to watch them do it without him after so many years of him trying to carry an awful team.

Denver (13-3) wins vs. Kansas City (2-14), 38-3

I SAW the Broncos catch a wave like Kelly Slater.

In Week 6, 2-3 Denver went into the locker room at halftime trailing San Diego 24-0.  What happened next was tidal.  The Broncos’ season swelled up in the form of 35 unanswered points to beat the Chargers, and it propelled upon an 11-game winning streak, straight into the number one seed in the AFC.

The road to the Super Bowl now goes through the Mile-High City.

Double Trivia Bomb:

This is the sixth time in franchise history that the Broncos have been the top seed.  They made it to the Super Bowl four of the last five times.

Denver swept the AFC West for the first time since 1998 – the last year they won the Super Bowl, under QB (and current team President) John Elway.

I SAW Broncos QB Peyton Manning have a better home field advantage than most can imagine.  If he can win two straight games at home in Denver, he’d travel to the city he grew up in, New Orleans, for the Super Bowl.  What an atmosphere that would be in the Superdome, with the prodigal son come home to try and host Lombardi in front of his father, Archie, who all but owns the town.

I SAW Denver QB Peyton Manning put up a season worthy of an MVP.  (But the award is Adrian Peterson’s, in my mind.  See: Minnesota wins at Green Bay, 34-7)

AP had a games for the ages up in Minnesota to make his case for the award, but it’s not like Manning laid an egg in his final audition: 23-for-29, 304 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 144.8 passer rating.  Oh – and he sat out the fourth quarter.

After barely being able to throw the ball less than a year ago, Manning finished with 4,659 passing yards and 37 touchdowns – both are the second-highest totals of his storied career.  In fact, had he played the fourth quarter he likely would have gained the 42 yards required to set a new career-high in single-season yardage.

It’s easy to forget because of how easy he’s made the game look this season, but remember: Manning’s on a new team.  Only two other QBs have guided their team to the top seed while making multiple starts with a new team:

QBs With Multiple Starts To Won Top Seed On a New Team

PLAYER YEAR TEAM
Peyton Manning 2012 Broncos
Ben Roethlisberger 2004 Steelers
Elvis Grbac* 1997 Chiefs

(Elias Sports Bureau)

*-Grbac started only ten games that season.  (Rich Gannon started the other six.)  You just knew the only way Elvis could make it onto a list like this is via asterisk.

I SAW doubts about the arm strength of Broncos QB Peyton Manning after multiple neck surgeries need to go away – for now.  Consider that Manning has actually been better throwing downfield than he was in his last healthy season:

Manning On Passes 10+ Yards Downfield, Last 2 Full Seasons Played

2010 2012
Comp % 43.9 56.6
Yards/Att 9.4 12.0
TD-INT Differential -1 +7

(ESPN Stats & Information)

I SAW PROPS to Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas and teammate, WR Eric Decker for making two great one-handed TD grabs.

I SAW Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas have his seventh 100-yard game this season, one less than Rod Smith’s franchise record for a single season.

I’d say it’s safe to say that Thomas has come into his own.

I SAW a woeful season for the Chiefs come to a woeful close, as they gained 119 yards on offense while getting bushwacked by the Broncos.

Befitting a team that took until November to hold a lead in a game, Kansas City has secured the first pick overall in the 2013 draft.  New head coach Andy Reid (see: Away from the game(s)) would love to snag a superstar for the ages with the selection….what, you say?  This is the least top-heavy draft class in years?  Man, contestants on Wheel Of Fish have better luck than KC.

uhf wheel of fish

(Orion Pictures)

“What’s inside the box?  Nothing!  Stupid!  You are so stupid!”

New England (12-4) wins vs. Miami (7-9), 28-0

I SAW the Patriots finish the season by winning 11 of their last 12 games.  They also set an NFL record with 444 first downs.

QB Tom Brady became the first player in league history to throw a touchdown in all 16 games for three straight seasons.  (STATS LLC)  As such, he passed Johnny Unitas for second all-time with a TD pass in 48 consecutive games.  If Brady can keep the streak going for seven more games to start next season, he will pass Drew Brees at number 1.

So, just business as usual in New England, then.

I SAW the Dolphins get shut out for the first time since November 2010 en route to finishing with their fourth straight losing season.

Miami’s season isn’t necessarily a disappointment, but they have some work to do to improve for next season.  Do they keep RB Reggie Bush, who finished the season just 14 rushing yards short of 1,000?  He’s been awfully inconsistent this season, but showed more talent than in recent years, especially on this candidate for run play of the year.

’Fins QB Ryan Tannehill finished with 282 completions, 484 attempts, and 3,294 yards passing on the season – all of which are franchise records for a rookie.  I’m pretty sure that when you have a bunch of bums at receiver, but your QB starts off more prolifically than a guy named Dan Marino did in his career, you stick with that quarterback for a while.

One question: What to do about said bums?

I SAW the Patriots defense continue its upswing by finishing hot against the Dolphins.  New England posted its first shutout since the 59-0 snow game against Tennessee in 2009 – largely thanks to a season-high seven sacks.

It’s common knowledge that a blitzing defense requires at least one dependable cover corner in order to succeed without getting burned deep.  It’s also common knowledge that the Pats haven’t had one of those CBs since Asante Samuel left after the 2007 season – until now.  Aqib Talib’s talent was never in doubt; it was discipline/personality problems.  Enter Bill Belichick and his coaching staff, who specialize in turning around bad seeds.  (Unless, of course, your name if Adalius Thomas.  What happened to that guy?)  There hasn’t been so much as a peep from Talib, and he’s been a godsend for New England’s blitz game.  Take a look at the change in the Pats defense when sending at least 5 pass rushers (translation: blitzing) since Week 11 – Talib’s first game as a Patriot:

Patriots Defense When Sending 5+ Pass Rushers, 2012 Season

Weeks 1-10 Weeks 11-17
Dropback % 15.0 35.1
Completion % 73.6 51.1
Yards/Attempt 9.6 6.3
TD-INT 4-0 3-5

(ESPN Stats & Information)

I SAW Patriots DE Justin Francis get three sacks Sunday.  Not bad for an undrafted rookie.

LB Rob Ninkovich left Sunday’s game with a hip injury.  If the linebacker isn’t his usual self in two weeks when New England’s playoff run starts, Francis could be a much-needed addition to the Pats pass rush.

 

I SAW the return of Gronk.  In limited action, Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski caught a TD in his first game back after missing five due to a broken forearm.

It’s incredible to think of how prolific the offense was without him.  Watch out for him in two weeks!

I SAW a concern for New England as they prepare for the playoffs:  They have been very slow out of the gates in their last two games.  Yeah, I’d say that spotting the Niners a 31-3 lead and falling behind 10-0 to the shitty Jaguars equals slow starts.

San Francisco (11-4-1) wins vs. Arizona (5-11), 27-13

I SAW the Niners regain crucial momentum while repeating as NFC West champions.  QB Colin Kaepernick threw for a career-high 276 yards, the running game got going again (129 yards).   Also, the defense was able to lick its wounds after being scolded by the Seahawks two weeks ago, thanks to one of the league’s biggest punching bags this season, the Cardinals offense.

I’ve talked a lot the last few weeks about getting momentum, and that a bye week can often work against a team by inducing rust.  Sometimes, though, a team needs the rest – especially when one of their most valuable players is hurt.  With this in mind, the Niners gladly welcome an extra week off so that DL Justin Smith’s injured triceps can help more.  (I’d now say the same thing about Falcons DE John Abraham.  See: Tamps Bay wins @ Atlanta, 22-17.)

I SAW the Cardinals bury their perfect start through 4 games under a heaping, steamy pile of shit.  I’m talking Ren & Stimpy, toilet-clogging type of shit.

Ren&Stimpy-poop toilet

(Nickelodeon Network)

Shit….I think the Cardinals were in here….

Arizona answered that 4-0 start with a 1-11 finish that cost head coach Ken Wisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves their jobs.  About the only silver lining that came from Sunday’s game for the Cards is that they broke a brutal streak of six games without a TD pass, and that rookie WR Michael Floyd finally made an impact in a game, with 8 catches for 166 yards.

But the real story in Arizona is the worst offensive line in a year full of bad ones across the league.  Four QBs were thrown into the fray, only to get mowed down like the troops that were continually sent up the grassy hill in The Thin Red Line.  If there’s one likely reason that Andy Reid passed up an interview with the ’Zona brass to take a job with Kansas City, it’s because the situation there reminded him too much of the shit storm he just ran from in Philly.

Good luck to the guy who has to repair this group.  His first mission: Rescue Cousin Larry Fitzgerald before he demands to be sent back to Mepos.

I SAW the ongoing emergence of Niners WR Michael Crabtree, who helped key Sunday’s win with 8 grabs and a career-high 172 yards receiving – the best day by a San Fran wideout in a decade, since Terrell Owens put up 166 against the Eagles in 2002.  Crabtree also became the first Niners players with 1,000 receiving yards since Owens in ’03.

Three seasons after being drafted tenth overall – years that were undermined by a series of nagging injuries – Crabtree is finally starting to ascend to a key role in the success of the San Fran offense.  It’s been a slow improvement, but a steady one:

Michael Crabtree Receiving Yards Per Season, Career

Year Receiving Yards
2012 1,105
2011 874
2010 741
2009 625

Crabtree’s surge couldn’t come at a better time for San Francisco, with WR Mario Manningham on injured reserve, and TE Vernon Davis dealing with a concussion.

I SAW one understandable explanation for why Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh decided to stay with QB Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith, even though Smith was playing well when he missed time with a concussion.  It’s the accuracy and velocity on throws that Harbaugh simply couldn’t call with Smith under center.  The numbers bear it out, too – at least where WR Michael Crabtree is concerned:  According to ESPN Stats & Information, Kaepernick was 3-for-4 when targeting Crabtree on throws at least 15 yards downfield on Sunday – including their 49-yard TD.  On the season, Kaepernick has targeted Crabtree on 15 such throws, compared to just 5 for Smith.

I SAW PROPS to Niners RB Frank Gore for setting the franchise record with 51 career rushing touchdowns, passing greats Roger Craig and Joe Perry.

Eight Is Enough: Impressively, all of Gore’s eight TD on the ground this season have come with at least eight defender in the box.  (ESPN Sports & Information)

eight is enough

(Lorimar Productions)

I SAW Niners LB Aldon Smith go sackless for the third straight game, after storming through his first 13 games with 19.5.  He’ll need to find his way back into the opponent’s backfield for the Niners to go deep into January.

I SAW Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson leave the game with a hamstring injury, but not before losing a receiver on a deep route, followed by a small tantrum on the bench.

It’s a frustrating end to a frustrating season for Peterson.  He got burned far too often for a player of his talent.  In the offseason he has to work on his footwork – not so much his ability but rather the discipline behind it.

I SAW Niners K David Akers miss two more field goals on Sunday, and get showered with boos from the home crowd at Candlestick Park for doing so.

Akers has now missed four of his last eight field goal attempts as part of a season he’d like to forget.  According to NFL.com, Harbaugh isn’t ruling out a change, and has been trying out other kickers.  Not a good sign for a team that tends to play in close defensive battles….

I SAW that Niners RB Brandon Jacobs is set to be released.  I feel bad even wasting the space to write that – not as bad as Harbaugh and Co. feel for wasting the roster space on the burnout, I’m sure.

Pittsburgh (8-8) wins vs. Cleveland (5-11), 24-10

I SAW the Steelers narrowly avoid their first losing season under head coach Mike Tomlin.

It was a whimper of an end to a Pittsburgh season that at one point saw them with a 6-3 record in November.  But they closed out the season with a 2-5 skid that ended in front of the smallest crowd in the 12-year history of Heinz Field.  (Associated Press)

QB Ben Roethlisberger improved to 7-0 at home against Cleveland in his career, on the strength of 3 TD passes on Sunday.  Pittsburgh has a lot of issues to address in the offseason, but keep Big Ben upright – and with a better compliment of backups – is paramount.

I SAW the NFL debut of Browns third-string QB, Thaddeus Lewis.  The second-year pro had a solid start: 22-of-32 for 204 yards, a touchdown, an interception, and an 83.3 passer rating.  His interception was a bad read that went to Steelers S Troy Polamalu, but Lewis is by no means the first quarterback to make that mistake.

The intrigue in Lewis’ performance can be heightened if Oregon University’s Chip Kelly decides to become the next head coach of the Browns, as has been rumored.  Rookie Brandon Weeden had a very good rookie year, but he’s as suited to run the up-tempo, fake-laden Kelly style of offense as Derek Jeter is at staying single.  Lewis’ body type and athleticism is a much better fit.

I SAW Steelers WR Plaxico Burress catch his first touchdown pass for Pittsburgh since 2004.  Sigh.  Juuuust a little too late, Plax.

I SAW speaking of bad firsts, Steelers S Troy Polamalu’s aforementioned interception of QB Thaddeus Lewis was his first of the year.

There sure are a lot of players past their prime that the Steelers organization loves, but really need to reassess….

Carolina (7-9) wins @ New Orleans (7-9), 44-38

I SAW surprise that NO ended up with same record as the Panthers, and in many ways it’s a bad summation of each teams’ season….

I SAW, well, I guess that’s a fitting end to the Saints’ star-crossed season – their first losing one since 2007.

Fitting because of the defensive disaster that was both New Orleans’ last game and whole season.  Continuing their tireless campaign for this season’s Tony Robbins Award (for making opponents feel better about themselves by playing them), the Saints allowed Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams to run for 210 yards.  Williams’ previous high this season was 93, in Week 14.

Only a year after setting the league record for most yards gained by an offense, New Orleans turned around and gave up more yardage than a drunk real estate agent in 2012, with an unbelievable 7,042 – also an NFL record.

That’s 440.1 yards per game allowed.  It’s also the most atrocious single-season team stat I’ve ever seen.  My god.

I SAW the one solace for the Saints in the next month or so is that their suspended head coach Sean Payton has a shiny new 5-year, $40 million contract, and comes back to work after the Super Bowl.

How eager Payton and the rest of his organization must be to put this disastrous year behind them.  I can just picture Payton now, listening to the end of the Super Bowl in his car in his driveway, engine running, ready to speed off to the team facility the minute the game – and thus the 2012 season – ends.

I SAW the Panthers end a severely disappointing season by at least saving face a little bit with a four-game win streak to end the regular season.  Their seven wins is actually a one-game improvement upon 2011, but it sure doesn’t feel like it – especially since head coach Ron Rivera’s been in the hot seat for months now.  It’s safe to assume that Carolina is going to stick with Rivera for next season, or else they’d be involved in the frenzy of hiring activity that has taken over the league this week.

I SAW Panthers QB Cam Newton finish of the season strong.  He regained his moxie running the ball, and became more careful with the ball, throwing only two interceptions in his last seven games, compared to ten in his first nine games.

I’d say Newton has a lot of soul-searching to do after a very immature-at-times season.

I’d also say that the first order of business for whomever is Carolina’s general manager next year is to put better offensive players around him – something the team failed to do last year.

I SAW PROPS to Saints QB Drew Brees for becoming the first player in NFL history with two straight 40 TD seasons.  In fact, Dan Marino is the only other player in league history with 2 seasons with 40 touchdown passes – in general.  Brees also became the first QB with three 5,000-yard passing seasons.

Brees has had a tough year without his head coach, and it’s been obvious that he’s pressed at times.  But let’s stop and appreciate the numbers he put up while playing by himself in some respects.

San Diego (4-12) wins vs. Oakland (7-9), 24-21

I SAW hail fall early in the game in San Diego – a fitting The Seventh Sign vibe that portended the end of the Norv Turner-A.J. Smith era for the Chargers.

Turner finished his time in San Diego by going 24-24 in the last three seasons.  As a head coach, he has never had a satisfying tenure while coaching three different teams:  A record of 49-59-1 in Washington, 9-23 in Oakland, and 56-40 with an often-stacked team in San Diego.   He is, however, an exceptional offensive coordinator.  Let’s all try and send those win-loss records to whoever again thinks about hiring Turner as a head coach.

To make matters worse, in any division other than the sad-sack AFC West, the Chargers would likely have even less wins.

In any other division, SD would have maybe three wins; they swept doormats Oakland and Kansas City.

I SAW Chargers gain just 210 yards on offense on Sunday, and the Raiders manage 265.  Just another craptastic AFC West matchup.

I SAW Charger Micheal Spurlock return the opening kickoff on Sunday 99 yards for a TD.  He’s the first Charger to return a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in consecutive weeks.  (STATS LLC)  There’s one guy the new front office might want to hang on to while overhauling the roster.  Or maybe not.  After all, who the hell spells their name Micheal?

I SAW the last truly zany personnel move by late owner Al Davis, QB Terrelle Pryor, make his first career start, with Carson Palmer out with rib and lung injuries.

Prognosis: Negative.  Pryor showed moments of athleticism, threw for one TD and ran for another, but had just as many bad moments.  Among them: A poorly thrown ball was lofted into the end zone and intercepted by ’Bolts CB Quentin Jammer.  Also, as the clock wound down in the first half Pryor got too cute trying to run for yardage without any time outs, failed to get out of bounds, and was forced to watch the clock run out with the ball in field goal range.

Tennessee (6-10) wins vs. Jacksonville (2-14), 38-20

I SAW a relatively meaningless game that still must have made both head coaches nervous.  Mike Mularkey (Jaguars) and Mike Munchak (Titans) both likely breathed sighs of relief once Black Monday passed without either of them getting canned.

Munchak’s survival is less surprising, if only because he’s been on Tennessee owner Bud Adams’ payroll for 30 years as a Hall Of Fame player and a coach, and Adams seems like the type to need to have a situation bite him in the nose before he’ll react.

Mularkey’s tenure, on the other hand, has been, well, malarkey.  You can bet that whoever becomes Jacksonville’s new general manager will be preparing to court a new head coach next year if things don’t improve noticeably.

Apart from the coaching “news”, there was but one thing worth looking at from this game, and was it ever a doozy….

I SAW PROPS to Titans LB Zach Brown and RB/KR Darius Reynaud for

one of the craziest, nonsensical sequence in a football game that I’ve ever seen – something that just defies traditional logic:

Trivia Doomsday Bomb, the Bomb To End All Bombs (at least this regular season):

In less than five minutes during Sunday’s game, the Jaguars scored 28 points without running an offensive play.

Take that, Sir Isaac Newton!

How did they do it?  By becoming the first team in NFL history to have two punt returns and two interceptions for touchdowns (Elias Sports Bureau) – and all of them came in that amazingly short stretch of game time.

What’s even crazier is that just two players scored them – Reynaud with the punt returns, and Brown with the pick-6’s.  Tennessee is also the first team ever to have two players each score on two returns in a single game.

Incredible.

More on Reynaud: According to ESPN Stats & Information he is the first player with two punt return touchdowns in a game since Reggie Bush did it in 2008.  He also became just the fifth player since 1940 with two punt return TDs of at least 69 yards in a single game.  (The last was Darrien Gordon in 1997, with Denver.)

Buffalo (6-10) wins vs. New York Jets (6-10), 28-9

I SAW the NFL regular season finish full, shit-stained circle, 12 Monkeys, a snake eating its own pathetic tail, or a 17-week groundhog day where each day is filled with an always-dreadful Jets-Bills matchup.

Way back in Week 1 New York opened up the season with a bang – a 48-24 thrashing of Buffalo.  The paths that either team followed after opening day involved a whole lot of sucking until, sadly, the better team won to end the year.

I SAW myself call the Bills a better team than the Jets.  It’s true.

Oh, it’s not because there’s much positive to say about Buffalo.  There isn’t.  Since that taunting 5-2 start last season, they’ve gone 7-18, which actually seems like a better record than they deserved during that stretch.  The Bills finished 2012’s swan dive by losing three of their last four on their journey to a fifth straight offseason spent in the basement of the AFC East, otherwise known as The Division That Should Be In College Without The Patriots.

While I’m on the topic, New England must feel like Ash Williams from Evil Dead.  Every time they turn around, some gross stinky should-be-dead thing tries to rise up and mess with them, only to be gored and sent back down from whence they came.

The-Evil-Dead-Ellen-Sandweiss

(DEG)

I digress. Where was I?  Oh, right – Jets suck.  To the tune of 60 total points scored in their last five games – a drought that sealed their worst record since going 4-12 in ’07.

Since playing in back-to-back AFC Championships New York is 14-18.

On Sunday, the Jets had nothing to play for but pride….

Whoops.

After being banished to the bench for too many dirty showings, QB Mark Sanchez had to start on Sunday because Greg McElroy was suffering concussion-like symptoms during the week.  Watching Sanchez play feels like being concussed.  On Sunday he turned the ball over twice more, to give him ten multi-turnover games this season.  Ten.

I’m with NFL Network’s Deion Sanders, who, on Gameday Final, said of Sanchez:

“[If] I’m the coach, and you play for me, I’m going to take the jersey off you myself.”

I SAW that the season went so badly, so embarrassingly for the Jets that they even ditched on their season-ending press conference, risking discipline from the NFL.

I SAW PROPS to Bills WR Stevie Johnson for becoming the first player in franchise history to have three straight seasons with 1,000 receiving yards.  Remember – this is a team that once had Hall Of Fame nominee Andre Reed and HOFer James Lofton.

Man, how bad would Buffalo’s passing game be without Johnson?

I SAW the perfect moment to close out the Bills’ regular season, as tweeted by Jets WR Braylon Edwards as his team’s bus pulled into the stadium on Sunday (via Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback):

“Lmao. A bills fan just tried to hit our bus with a snow ball but instead he slipped and bust his a– and his beer spilled on him.”

You just knew that the Bills’ hopes would once again end up like Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern in Home Alone.

home alone-fall down

(20th Century Fox)

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, WILD CARD EDITION – HERE AT TFQ. 

IN THE MEANTIME, FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK.

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2 thoughts on “What I Saw, Wk 17 2012

  1. Pingback: What I Saw, Wild Card Week, 2012 Season | The Fifth Quarter

  2. Pingback: What I Saw, Conference Championships, 2012 Season | The Fifth Quarter

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