NFL Nation: 2010 Week 15 Rapid Reaction

Rapid Reaction: Bears 40, Vikings 14

December, 20, 2010
12/20/10
11:48
PM ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- A few thoughts after a championship night in the NFC North with the Bears winning 40-14:

What it means: This season began with questions about the Chicago Bears' long-term direction under general manager Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith. It will end with nothing less than the NFC North title. Monday night's victory clinched the division championship and left the Bears on track for the No. 2 seed in the NFC, which comes along with a first-round bye. At 10-4, they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with the 10-4 Philadelphia Eagles. And according to ESPN's Playoff Machine, there is a scenario where the Bears could clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they win their final two games and the Atlanta Falcons lose their final two games.

FavreWatch: I would call Monday night the swan song of Brett Favre's career, but we already did that earlier this month. The day began with Favre listed as "out" on the injury report and accelerated into bizarre territory when he was upgraded to questionable. It became downright stunning when he started after sitting out two weeks of practice because of a sprained SC joint and recurring numbness near his right shoulder. Favre took the Vikings to a touchdown on their opening drive and threw with stunning zip throughout his five series. But his night ended with a head injury after Bears rookie Corey Wootton slammed him to the unforgiving turf at TCF Bank Stadium with 11 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Favre lay motionless for several moments before walking slowly to the sidelines.

CutlerWatch: Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is heading to the playoffs for the first time in his NFL career. He threw three touchdown passes Monday night, including a beautiful 67-yard pass to receiver Johnny Knox that gave the Bears a 10-7 lead in the second quarter.

HesterWatch: As we noted earlier, Bears returner Devin Hester returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, setting a new NFL record with 14 career kickoff or punt returns.

TCF BankWatch: It didn't go unnoticed that Favre suffered the injury when his head bounced off the turf at TCF Bank Stadium. Field conditions were far from ideal, as players slipped at increasing rates as the game went on. It's impossible to know how much of that was based on Monday's unavoidable snow fall and how much could be attributed to the lack of heating coils under the field itself. After a week's worth of consternation about the change of venue, the crowd totaled 40,504. Most important, it offered the Vikings no perceptible home-field advantage and their margin of defeat was actually greater than last week's loss at Ford Field to the New York Giants.

My favorite play: Bears safety Chris Harris stood up and slammed Vikings tailback Toby Gerhart on third-and-2 in the second quarter. It was the kind of hit that told you the Bears came to play. I'm not sure I can say the same about the Vikings.

What's next: The Bears will host the New York Jets and the Vikings will travel to the Philadelphia Eagles, both on Sunday.

Rapid Reaction: Patriots 31, Packers 27

December, 19, 2010
12/19/10
11:38
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rapid reaction from the New England Patriots' 31-27 win against the Green Bay Packers at Gillette Stadium:

What it means: It came down to the last play, with Tully Banta-Cain sacking quarterback Matt Flynn, as Flynn struggled to get the final play off on fourth-and-1. It looked like a case of poor clock management, and an inexperienced quarterback unsure of what he wanted to do. The Patriots improve to 12-2 in a game they just survived.

They’ll be talking about Connolly’s kickoff return: When was the last time you saw an offensive lineman return a kickoff 71 yards? Never, of course, because it happened for the first time when Patriots right guard Dan Connolly rumbled 71 yards to set up a 2-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Aaron Hernandez. Since the statistic was first recorded in 1994, it marked the longest kickoff return by an offensive lineman. Connolly, a five-year veteran who filled in admirably for left guard Logan Mankins for the season’s first seven games and now is starting at right guard in place of injured Stephen Neal, played the ensuing offensive series before leaving the game with a concussion.

Up and down night for Patriots defense: Through three quarters, it didn’t look pretty for the Patriots' defense. The Packers held a time of possession edge of 31:26 to 13:34 at that point, and the defense looked tired, unable to come up with the critical stop on third down. The Packers were 9-for-13 on third down through three quarters. The tired defense came up with the big stops in the fourth quarter, just when it appeared it was on its last legs.

Penalties hurt the Patriots: New England entered the game ranked fourth in the NFL for fewest accepted penalties in the NFL. They had a tough night in that area with Ed Hochuli’s crew. A potential game-ending interception was nullified by an illegal hands to the face penalty on Tully Banta-Cain, which reflected the Patriots’ struggles in this area.

Should Packers have gone for it on fourth-and-1? Early in the fourth quarter, the Packers led 24-21 and had the ball on the Patriots’ 1-yard line. This came after the Packers couldn’t punch it in on first and goal from the 2. Coach Mike McCarthy elected to kick the field goal on fourth down, a decision that will probably be second-guessed in Green Bay.

Packers brought their best effort: One week after a disappointing loss to the Lions in which they lost starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a concussion, the Packers rebounded in a big way. They played an inspired game, opening with a successful onside kick. Third-year quarterback Flynn, who made his first career start, showed poise until the final play, especially after throwing a third-quarter interception that was returned 36 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Kyle Arrington.

What’s next: The Patriots visit the Buffalo Bills next Sunday. With the New York Jets winning a big road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, the team’s lead in the AFC East remains two games.

Rapid Reaction: Jets 22, Steelers 17

December, 19, 2010
12/19/10
7:24
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- Here are some early thoughts on the New York Jets' victory against the Steelers:

What it means: Pittsburgh fell to 10-4 and had its four-game winning streak stopped by New York. This also tightens the race in the AFC North, as the Baltimore Ravens (10-4) beat the New Orleans Saints to tie the Steelers in the standings with two games remaining.

What I liked: Pittsburgh did a decent job of putting together long touchdown drives against a good Jets defense. The Steelers drove 96 yards on 16 plays for a second-quarter touchdown, and they added a 74-yard scoring drive to start the second half, which was capped by a Rashard Mendenhall 2-yard touchdown run. Pittsburgh's offensive line played well, helping Mendenhall to 100 yards rushing. A frantic finish by the offense at the end of the game also gave the Steelers a chance to win, but they came up short.

What I didn't like: Pittsburgh's special teams have improved this year, but its kick coverage had its worst game of the season. New York’s Brad Smith took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown to give the Jets an early lead. And Jerricho Cotchery did well with punt returns. Pittsburgh's pass rush also was pedestrian, recording only one sack, and overall the defense didn't make many big plays without injured safety Troy Polamalu (Achilles) in the lineup. A fourth-quarter safety by New York came on a poorly executed play by Pittsburgh.

What's next: The Steelers will have a short turnaround before a Thursday night game at home against the Carolina Panthers (2-12). It will be a chance for Pittsburgh to get over this tough loss and back in the win column. It also gives Pittsburgh an extended rest for its regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns.

Rapid Reaction: Jets 22, Steelers 17

December, 19, 2010
12/19/10
7:21
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- The New York Jets escaped Heinz Field with a white-knuckle 22-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What it means: The Jets badly needed to win. They snapped an ugly two-game losing streak and notched their 10th victory to put them on the cusp of a playoff berth. They might not need to win another game if the proper opponents lose over the next two weeks.

Defense stands up to Big Ben: Despite some harrowing moments, the Jets contained Ben Roethlisberger's comeback aspirations. Drew Coleman had a pair of strip sacks in the fourth quarter, but Roethlisberger kept coming until time ran out with the ball on the Jets' 10-yard line.

Unsung hero: Jets receiver Braylon Edwards made several tough catches and took a pounding from the Steelers. He finished with eight receptions for 100 yards. His difficult 38-yard catch down the right sideline set up a Nick Folk field goal in the second quarter.

Plays of the game: The Jets started and finished the game with bangs. Brad Smith returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown to give the Jets some much-needed confidence. After running back Rashard Mendenhall trampled the Jets for 57 minutes, Jason Taylor threw Mewelde Moore for a 3-yard loss and a safety with 2:38 to play.

Jets offense snaps futility streak: Mark Sanchez ran a bootleg into the end zone from 7 yards out to tie the score at 17 in the third quarter. That was the first offensive touchdown since Thanksgiving night, a span of 11 quarters.

Holmescoming: In his first game against the Steelers since they traded him for a fifth-round draft choice, Jets receiver Santonio Holmes had six catches for 40 yards. Holmes had a 20-yard gain wiped out by a costly Matt Slauson holding call. Rather than have first-and-goal at the 5-yard line, the possession ended with a punt.

What's next: The Jets' rugged homestretch continues with a game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

Rapid Reaction: Eagles 38, Giants 31

December, 19, 2010
12/19/10
4:39
PM ET
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Some quick thoughts on one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of this rivalry.

What it means: The Eagles have sole possession of first place in the NFC East with a 10-4 record. The Giants fell to 9-5 with the loss and they'll have to fight for their playoff lives. Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson had been held down for much of the day, but he ended the game with a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown. He muffed the punt and then broke two tackles on his way to the end zone. The play stunned the crowd and Giants coach Tom Coughlin tossed his headset in frustration. It set off a wild celebration on the Eagles' sideline.

Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell overwhelmed Eagles quarterback Michael Vick with his game plan in the first half. The Giants blitzed from all over the field in the first half and Vick didn't have any time to get the ball downfield toJackson or Jeremy Maclin. Like he did in the first game, Giants safety Antrel Rolle made life difficult for Vick on the blitz. And Eagles right tackle King Dunlap had no answers for defensive end Justin Tuck.

What was Andy thinking? The Andy Reid haters would've had plenty of ammunition in this game. What could Reid possibly have hoped to accomplish late in the first half? His defense had just held the Giants to a field goal, so the deficit was only 17-3. With 22 seconds left, Vick raced up to the line of scrimmage and delivered a short pass to Maclin across the middle. Maclin fumbled and safety Kenny Phillips scooped it up and ran 22 yards. The Giants made it 24-3 heading into the half on a short touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks. But most of that stuff will be forgotten because of the remarkable comeback by the Eagles in the fourth quarter.

Reid also hurt his team in the fourth quarter when he failed to challenge a Jackson fumble. Replays revealed that Jackson was touched on the way to the ground.

Never count out Vick: Even though things went poorly for Vick for much of this game, he pulled off the miracle comeback. The Giants did such a nice job of containing him for three quarters and then he exploded in the fourth quarter. The Giants stopped doing a good job of setting the edge and Vick put on a show at New Meadowlands Stadium.

I thought the Giants got cute in the fourth quarter when they were allowing Tuck to cover Brent Celek 20 yards downfield. Celek made them pay with a long touchdown, and then the Eagles executed a perfect onside kick. This is one of those losses that could have a carryover effect for the Giants. And for the Eagles, they have to feel like they stole one. A remarkable ending. And we'll have a lot more after I head down to the locker room.

What's next? The Giants will head to Green Bay (8-5) for another huge NFC matchup. The Eagles will host the Vikings at the Linc.

Rapid Reaction: Chiefs 27, Rams 13

December, 19, 2010
12/19/10
4:34
PM ET
ST. LOUIS -- A look at a big win for the Kansas City Chiefs.

What it means: The Chiefs are in good shape in the AFC West playoff race. Kansas City is now 9-5. If the Chiefs win their final two games of the regular season -- at home next week against Tennessee and on Jan. 2 against Oakland-- they will win the AFC West. If Kansas City wins next week and San Diego loses at Cincinnati, the Chiefs will win the division. Kansas City ended its regular-season road slate the right way. It is 3-5 on the road.

Tomorrow’s talker: Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel is one of the top stories of the NFL on Sunday. He came back and led the Chiefs to a pivotal win 11 days after having an appendectomy. It wasn’t certain Cassel would play until Sunday morning. He was limited in practice all week. But Cassel gave Kansas City a much-needed spark and leadership as it bounced back from a 31-0 loss at San Diego last week.

Stepping it up: The Rams looked like they could run away from the Chiefs early. St. Louis scored field goals on its first two series and was cruising down the field at ease. But the Chiefs’ defense tightened and the offense woke up. Kansas City went on a pivotal 20-0 run that was sparked by a fourth-down conversion from its own 48-yard line early in the second quarter.

The answer: With just over four minutes remaining, the Rams showed their first signs of life since the first quarter by going down the field and scoring a touchdown to cut the deficit to 20-13. We had a ball game -- for a play. On the Chiefs’ next offensive play, running back Jamaal Charles ran for 80 yards to the Rams’ goal line. The Chiefs then punched it in to take a two-touchdown lead again.

What’s next: The Chiefs have to feel good. If they win their two final home games of the season, they will win the division. The Chiefs are 6-0 at home this season.

ARLINGTON -- On a sleepy Sunday afternoon at Cowboys Stadium, the Redskins-Cowboys game came down to the end and David Buehler, who earlier missed a 35-yard field goal, made a 39-yarder to give the Cowboys a 33-30 win against the Redskins. Terence Newman's interception at the final gun sealed the victory for the Cowboys. For a defense that struggled most of the game, it seemed fitting that it ended with a Rex Grossman underthrown pass directed to Chris Cooley that was picked off.

What it means: Not much, considering these two teams are not going anywhere this season. Well, we guess it gives the Cowboys revenge over the Redskins, whom they lost to in the regular-season opener. It's also the Cowboys' second home win of the year. It ties them with boxer Manny Pacquiao with the most wins in 2010 in Cowboys Stadium. Pacquiao won two fights here.

The defensive collapse: The Cowboys held a 27-7 lead in the third quarter, but were outscored 23-3, allowing Washington to tie. Yes, the defense had two inside linebackers playing hurt in Bradie James (knee) and Keith Brooking (foot), but the other playmakers didn't make enough plays on the ball during the burst by the Redskins. On one of the last drives of the game, sacks by Orlando Scandrick on a corner blitz, and Victor Butler, who rushed inside and got free because of DeMarcus Ware's rush from the edge, gave the Cowboys the ball back for the final three minutes of the game.

Injuries to two key defensive players: The Cowboys lost starting strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh and backup inside linebacker Sean Lee to concussions in the first half. Neither player returned. Barry Church replaced Sensabaugh, and a variety of players took over for Lee.

Witten reaches milestone: Jason Witten finished with 10 catches for 140 yards and one touchdown Sunday. Coming into the game, Witten needed five catches to reach 600 in his career. Now with 605 he has become one of four tight ends, joining Tony Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe and Ozzie Newsome, with more than 600 catches in their career.

What's next: The Cowboys will end the season with a two-game trip starting Christmas night at Arizona. The last time Dallas finished the final two regular-season games on the road was 2007 and they split them, a win at Carolina and a loss at Washington.

Rapid Reaction: Colts 34, Jaguars 24

December, 19, 2010
12/19/10
4:17
PM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- Thoughts on the Colts’ win over the Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium.

What it means: The Colts have caught the Jaguars at 8-6 and have gained control of their own destiny. If Indianapolis wins its final two games, it’s assured of the AFC South crown. Jacksonville had such control but lost it late in the season for the fourth time in seven years.

What I liked: Indianapolis ran it with a good deal of success against a run defense that’s been quite stout. The Colts found the Jaguars’ weakness and abused it, making plays against the Jaguars’ safeties, particularly Sean Considine, who struggled against both the run and the pass. Tyjuan Hagler did great work to ice it, snatching a weak onside kick with 1:47 remaining and sprinting to a 41-yard touchdown.

What I didn’t like: Far too many confusing calls by referee Mike Carey and his crew. Two of them in the first half benefited the Jaguars.

Decisive moment: Marcedes Lewis made a great play to pull in a high David Garrard pass on a big touchdown drive late in the third quarter. But Garrard’s next too-high pass couldn’t be saved. It sailed over Jason Hill and was intercepted by Antoine Bethea. The Colts drove to a field goal that gave them a two-score lead.

Injury concern: Austin Collie provided a huge boost to the Colts' offense while catching two touchdown passes, but Daryl Smith delivered a hard hit in the second quarter. Smith’s arm banged Collie’s helmet. The team announced the receiver had a concussion. It’s his second of the season and he had just made it back from the first.

What’s next: The Colts head to Oakland to face the Raiders. The Jaguars host the Washington Redskins.

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