NFL Nation: 2011 Week 15 Rapid Reaction

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 20, Steelers 3

December, 20, 2011
12/20/11
12:35
AM ET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 20-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on "Monday Night Football" at Candlestick Park in Week 15:

What it means: The 49ers improved to 11-3 and stayed just ahead of 11-3 New Orleans for the second seed in the NFC playoffs, based on a tiebreaker (superior conference record: 8-2 for the 49ers, 7-3 for the Saints). The top two seeds get first-round playoff byes and home games in the divisional round. By winning, the 49ers joined the Saints in keeping pressure on 13-1 Green Bay to continue winning. That could eventually help Seattle and Arizona; both teams' playoff chances would improve if Green Bay's Week 17 opponent, Detroit, lost its final two games. The 49ers' victory gave NFC West teams a 3-1 record outside the division in Week 15.

What I liked: The 49ers became the third team since Miami in 2007 to shut out the Steelers in a first half. Cornerback Carlos Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson picked off Ben Roethlisberger in the first half. Cornerback Tarell Brown picked one off late. Linebacker Larry Grant, subbing for Patrick Willis, leaped high to break up a pass. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith delivered a big hit on Roethlisberger late in the third quarter. The rookie later joined Ray McDonald in sacking Roethlisberger, forcing a fumble the 49ers recovered inside the Pittsburgh 20. That turnover set up the clinching touchdown run by Frank Gore. Smith collected 2.5 sacks overall, giving him 13 for the season. Quarterback Alex Smith took no sacks after absorbing 18 over the 49ers' previous three games. Later, with San Francisco leading 6-3 in the third quarter, Smith found tight end Vernon Davis for a 31-yard gain across midfield. The Steelers can be tough on opposing tight ends, and that was the case for much of this game. The 49ers stuck with it, got a little creative and found ways to get Davis open. Davis rewarded his team with the 31-yard reception over his shoulder, followed by a 21-yard reception to the Pittsburgh 1-yard line, followed by a 1-yard scoring reception and redemption in the red zone. Punter Andy Lee and the 49ers' coverage team repeatedly pinned the Steelers deep in their own territory, continuing a season-long trend.

What I didn't like: Two power outages delayed the game, an embarrassment for the 49ers and the NFL even if the problems weren't under their control. Terrible Towels waved throughout the stadium. Thousands of 49ers fans apparently sold their tickets. It's tough to begrudge a fan for collecting a fat payday every so often, but a 49ers team with a 10-3 record coming into the game was worthy of more partisan support. On the field, the Steelers found soft spots in the 49ers' coverage along the sidelines, getting the ball behind outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who appeared to have coverage on shorter routes. Goldson missed two tackles early in the game, leading to big plays for the Steelers. The 49ers settled for two first-half field goals, squandering drives that reached the Pittsburgh 4- and 20-yard lines. Gore's season-long issues with dropped passes continued. He entered the game with five drops on 26 targets, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Gore dropped two more passes in this game.

Red zone reversal: The 49ers had failed to score a touchdown on seven consecutive red zone possessions over a three-game period before Monday night. They settled for another red zone field goal early in this game, but two red zone touchdowns helped turn a 6-3 lead into a 20-3 runaway for the 49ers.

Akers gets the record: David Akers set a 49ers franchise record for most points in a season. He entered the game with 135 points, trailing Jerry Rice (138 in 1987) and Mike Cofer (136 in 1989).

Rushing touchdown defense: The 49ers still have not allowed a rushing touchdown all season. Their streak dating to last season has spanned 15 games, matching the 1985-86 Chicago Bears for the longest streak since 1970. The 49ers already held the NFL single-season record since 1970. That streak is at 14, three more than the ones San Francisco and Cleveland strung together in 1992.

49ers injuries of note: Left tackle Joe Staley, questionable for this game after suffering a concussion, left this game with a leg injury. The 49ers listed his return as questionable. Return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. did not return after suffering an ankle injury when tackled awkwardly on the kickoff to open the second half. The 49ers listed his return as questionable. Willis missed the game with a hamstring injury.

Turnover margin key, again: The 49ers were plus-four in turnover margin against the Steelers. They are now plus-25 for the season, best in the NFL.

What's next: The 49ers visit the Seahawks in a game with NFC seeding implications for San Francisco. The Seahawks must win for any shot at keeping their playoff hopes alive.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 20, Steelers 3

December, 20, 2011
12/20/11
12:30
AM ET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Quick thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 20-3 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

What it means: The Steelers' offensive struggles cost Pittsburgh a prime opportunity to gain control of the division and the AFC's top seed, just like the Ravens did one night earlier on the West Coast. In order to win the division now, the Steelers (10-4) need the Ravens (10-4) to lose one of their remaining two games. Baltimore finishes out the regular season home against Cleveland and at Cincinnati. Pittsburgh was shut out in the first half for the second time this season and finished with a season-worst three points.

Not the same Roethlisberger: The high-ankle sprain hurt Ben Roethlisberger's accuracy and ability to throw deep. All three of his interceptions were on passes that traveled more than 10 yards. Roethlisberger then fumbled in the fourth quarter while getting sacked. The 49ers converted 13 points off those turnovers. Roethlisberger finished 25-of-44 (56.8 percent) for 330 yards. And since we're on the subject, why was Roethlisberger still in a 17-point game late in the fourth quarter?

Unexpected delays: The game was stopped twice because of power outages that caused Candlestick Park to go completely dark. Kickoff was pushed back 40 minutes, and the second quarter was held up by 10 minutes. The outages were caused by a transformer blowing outside the stadium, according to a 49ers spokesman.

Harrison factor: The absence of linebacker James Harrison, who was serving his one-game suspension, was felt in the lack of a pass rush. The Steelers failed to sack quarterback Alex Smith. Getting to Smith has been a key to beating San Francisco. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Smith has been sacked 20 times in three losses and only 19 times in 11 wins.

Bad cover-up: The game was broken open in the third quarter when the 49ers took advantage of the mismatch of the Steelers linebackers on San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis. There were completions of 31 yards (against James Farrior) and 21 yards (against Lawrence Timmons) to put the 49ers at the 1-yard line. Then, Davis was left wide open for a 1-yard touchdown as San Francisco extended its lead to 13-3.

What's next: The Steelers play their final home game of the regular season when they host the St. Louis Rams (2-12) on Saturday.

Rapid Reaction: Chargers 34, Ravens 14

December, 18, 2011
12/18/11
11:14
PM ET

SAN DIEGO -- Rapid reaction from the Baltimore Ravens' 34-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers at Snapdragon Stadium:

What it means: The Ravens (10-4) didn't show up again on the road, but none of those losses were as costly as this one. Depending on how the Pittsburgh Steelers fare at San Francisco tomorrow night, Baltimore might have lost control of the AFC North, a home playoff game and a first-round bye. The Ravens would have been the AFC's top seed if they won out. Now, there is a chance that they'll be a No. 5 seed. The Ravens learned before the game that they clinched a playoff spot as the result of the Tennessee Titans and Oakland Raiders losing. It was all downhill after that.

Defense gets shredded: Baltimore's much-heralded defense got embarrassed on national television. The Ravens allowed the Chargers to score on their first five drive and allowed a season-high in points in just three quarters of play. With no pass rush on Philip Rivers, he picked apart the Ravens, completing 17 of 23 passes for 270 yards. Rookie first-round pick Jimmy Smith had a rough initiation to a top-tier passing attack, getting picked on frequently.

Flacco roughed up: While Rivers went nearly untouched, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco faced consistent pressure. He was sacked three times by former Ravens linebacker Antwan Barnes. Flacco threw two interceptions in the second half.

The return of Ray Lewis, who was playing in his first game in five weeks, was a non-factor.

Troubling start: The Ravens' opening drive ended with Billy Cundiff missing a 36-yard field goal. Then, Baltimore allowed the Chargers to march 74 yards on 12 plays for a touchdown. It ended the Ravens' streak of not allowing an opponent to score a touchdown on its opening drive at 21 games. That set the tone for the entire game.

What's next: The Ravens return home to play the last-place Cleveland Browns on Saturday.

DENVER -- A look at a game Denver fumbled away.

What it means: The Denver Broncos’ six game winning streak is over. The Broncos are now 8-6. However, Denver is still alone in first place in the AFC West because Oakland lost to Detroit in the final minute. Denver is still in great shape in the AFC West race.

Defense not elite: Denver’s defense is surely improved, but they were no match for Tom Brady. He made plays when he needed to make plays. Brady and tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski wore down this defense. The two tight ends combined for 13 catches for 182 yards and a touchdown. Of course, the Denver defense wasn’t helped by three fumbles in Denver territory.

Not Tebow’s fault: There will be a lot of talk that TebowMania has been solved. Don’t buy it. He is improving and he wasn’t the reason for this loss. His fumble didn’t help, but this was a team loss.

Game changed in the second quarter: Denver had the Patriots where it wanted them after the first quarter. The Broncos had a 13-7 lead and had the ball for 10:45 of the first. Then, after Denver made it 16-7 early in the second, New England exploded for 20 unanswered points in the quarter and Denver hardly touched the ball. The Broncos couldn’t overcome the second quarter.

Huge first quarter on the ground: Denver had 167 yards on the ground in the first quarter. But because of New England’s points explosion, it had to throw the ball more. Denver, the No. 1 ground team in the NFL, finished the game with 252 yards on the ground.

What’s next: Denver travels to Buffalo on Saturday where the long-term forecast calls for weather to be in the 30s and a mostly sunny day.

Rapid Reaction: Patriots 41, Broncos 23

December, 18, 2011
12/18/11
7:45
PM ET

DENVER -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots’ 41-23 victory over the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

PatriotsBroncosWhat it means: The Patriots clinch the AFC East championship with the win. Improving to 11-3, they find themselves atop the AFC with Baltimore (10-3) playing Sunday night and Pittsburgh (10-3) on Monday night. Houston lost at home to Carolina to drop to 10-4. Those are the top four teams in the AFC and the Patriots are well positioned for a top playoff seed.

Defensive turnaround: The Patriots had an awful first quarter, giving up 167 rushing yards in the first 15 minutes and falling behind 13-7. The Broncos went up 16-7 early in the second quarter, before the Patriots ripped off the next 20 points. The turnaround was aided by some costly Broncos mistakes (two fumbles on offense, one on special teams) that were turned into 13 points. Credit goes to the Patriots for creating those turnovers. The defense, which looked like the worst in the NFL early, engineered a solid comeback.

Mental toughness on display: All year, the Patriots have proven to be a mentally tough team. That was on display again Sunday after a horrific start defensively. These Patriots might not be the most talented team in the NFL, but they’ve shown that it takes quite a punch to knock them out. No environment or tough situation seems too big for them. Tom Brady also showed his overall toughness. He took a major hit from Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil, lifting him off his feet for a crunching sack, but popped right back up.

Hernandez shines: One week after Rob Gronkowski set the NFL record for most touchdown receptions in a season by a tight end, it was Aaron Hernandez’s turn to shine. He finished with nine receptions for 129 yards and 1 touchdown, with some stellar work after the catch. The Patriots were without No. 2 receiver Deion Branch (groin) in the game and while Chad Ochocinco contributed with a 33-yard touchdown catch and some solid downfield blocking, it was Hernandez who was the No. 1 offensive star.

Andre Carter knee injury: Veteran defensive end Andre Carter left the game on a cart late in the first quarter after clutching his left knee. It didn’t look good and the Patriots announced he would not return. Veteran Mark Anderson played well in Carter’s place with a forced fumble and two sacks. Overall, Anderson was one of the Patriots’ top performers.

Thoughts on Tebow: The Broncos certainly didn’t lose this game because of Tim Tebow, who was up to the challenge in this big game. Tebow’s lost fumble in the second quarter was his big miscue, but he gave the Patriots all they could handle. As a passer, Tebow didn’t look out of place. While he is still growing in that area, he made some nice plays with his arm in this game.

What’s next: The Patriots return home to face the Dolphins on Saturday, Dec. 24 (1 p.m.). The Broncos visit the Bills that day.

Rapid Reaction: Eagles 45, Jets 19

December, 18, 2011
12/18/11
7:37
PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- Here are some initial thoughts on the Philadelphia Eagles' 45-19 victory over the New York Jets:

What it means: The Jets fell to 8-6 and blew their one-game lead for the final spot in the AFC. The Jets are tied with the Cincinnati Bengals (8-6). Fortunately, New York received a lot of help from other playoff hopefuls. The Oakland Raiders (7-7) and Tennessee Titans (7-7) both lost, which helps New York. It looks like Cincinnati could be New York's biggest threat down the stretch with two games remaining.

Turnovers aplenty: This was the sloppiest game I've covered all season. The Jets and Eagles combined for seven first-half turnovers and eight total. Both showed why they've been among the most inconsistent teams all season. There were five lost fumbles and three interceptions. The difference is the Eagles made many more significant plays.

Pass protection issues: The Jets' offensive line has had trouble protecting quarterback Mark Sanchez all season. That weakness was further exploited by Philadelphia on Sunday. The Eagles recorded four sacks, and defensive end Jason Babin had three against Jets right tackle Wayne Hunter. Babin became the 10th player in NFL history to record three sacks in back-to-back games.

Mistakes for Holmes: Jets receiver Santonio Holmes isn't known for making a ton of mistakes. But he had three big gaffes on Sunday. Holmes fumbled the ball on his first catch, and it was returned the other way for a 46-yard touchdown. He ended another first-quarterback drive with a drop that led to an interception by Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel. Holmes also was flagged for taunting after his touchdown catch before halftime that cost New York 15 yards. Holmes finished with four receptions for 40 yards and the touchdown.

What’s next: Next week will be very interesting for the Jets. They will host the Giants (7-7) at MetLife Stadium in the "Battle of New York." This game will also be a playoff eliminator with both New York teams coming off losses in Week 15. The Giants lost to the Washington Redskins Sunday, 23-10.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Mounting injuries and the firestorm of Sam Hurd’s arrest on federal drug charges earlier in the week proved too much for the Bears to overcome Sunday in an embarrassing 38-14 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

The Bears remain in contention for a postseason berth, but the team's pulse is fading fast.

Let’s take a look at this team’s ineptitude in depth:

What it means: The loss doesn’t mathematically eliminate the Bears from postseason contention, but it sure put the team right on the verge of disappearing from the hunt. The Bears entered Sunday one game behind the Detroit Lions (8-5) for a wild-card spot. So even if Chicago would have defeated the Seahawks and Detroit lost, the Bears would have still been behind the Lions because of the teams’ division records.

So Chicago’s remaining outings against NFC North foes Green Bay and Minnesota and Detroit’s last game with the Packers are still important. But the Seahawks have moved past the Bears in the NFC standings. Although they have the same record (7-7), the Seahawks hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Bears used to win when D scores: The Bears racked up a 3-0 record through the first 13 games when they scored a defensive touchdown. But the trend came to an end Sunday in the loss to the Seahawks.

Chicago put a defensive touchdown on the board with 2:23 left in the first quarter when Julius Peppers sacked and stripped Seahawks quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and Israel Idonije pounced on the ball for a TD. The score initially seemed like an omen the Bears would pull this one out.

After all, the Bears won a Week 10 game against the Lions when Charles Tillman and Major Wright scored on interception returns of 44 and 24 yards, respectively. The club also captured victories over the Carolina Panthers in Week 4, and the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1 thanks to defensive TDs by D.J. Moore and Brian Urlacher.

It all came to an end against the Seahawks.

The Bears are now 14-2 since 2005 when they score a defensive touchdown and 17-5 in such situations since 2004.

Injury bug biting: Injuries continue to decimate Chicago’s roster. The Bears lost starters Johnny Knox (lower back) and safety Chris Conte (foot/ankle) to injuries against the Seahawks.

It’s unclear whether Knox and Conte will miss extended time with their injuries, but the club’s numbers continue to dwindle.

The Bears entered the game without quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte, defensive tackle Henry Melton and safety Major Wright.

Importance of scoring first: The Bears typically win when they strike first. Over the past eight years, the Bears had compiled a record of 41-24 when they put points on the board first. Over that same span, the Bears were 29-31 when opponents scored first, including 2-3 in 2011.

Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch scored on a 2-yard run with 8:41 left in the first quarter for the first points of the game. Apparently, that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.

The Bears are now 29-32 when the opponent scores first and 2-4 in 2011.

More fun with numbers: The Bears are now 12-29 since 2004 when they finish with a negative turnover margin.

The Bears were minus-five in turnover margin thanks to a Knox fumble, a trio of Caleb Hanie interceptions -- two returned for touchdowns -- and a fourth-quarter Josh McCown INT.

Set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season, Hanie has likely sealed his fate in Chicago with his poor play over four starts.

What’s next: The Bears face the Green Bay Packers on the road Sunday night.

Rapid Reaction: Colts 27, Titans 13

December, 18, 2011
12/18/11
4:14
PM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- Thoughts on the Colts’ 27-13 win over the Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium:

What it means: A happy day in Indy. The 2011 Colts won’t be joining the 2008 Detroit Lions in NFL annals as an 0-16 team. They played tight and efficient defense, rushed the passer well while not allowing big plays, took the ball away three times and ran the ball with some consistency en route to their first win. It was the first NFL win for Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who was also on that Lions team. The result effectively ended the Titans’ playoff hopes. Now 7-7 they’d need a ton of help to earn the last wild card spot at 9-7.

What I liked -- Colts: Big plays on defense. Maligned cornerback Jacob Lacey took a pass away from Chris Johnson and returned it 32 yards for a score. Pat Angerer killed the Titans when they looked to be getting things going in the fourth quarter, stripping Jared Cook for a fumble which was recovered by Chris Rucker. Angerer also picked off Hasselbeck in the end zone on a deep try for Nate Washington thrown as the quarterback got hit. The Colts got a consistently good push up front and matched it with tight coverage, allowing the Titans few big chunks. Outside of an awkward trip as he backed out from center and handed off, Orlovsky played with composure and decisiveness. The defense probably tackled as well as it has all season -- even on Chris Johnson’s late 35-yard run, Rucker caught him and pulled him down from behind.

What I didn’t like -- Titans: Yes, Matt Hasselbeck was under consistent pressure. But a combination of play-calling by offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and decision-making by Hasselbeck was far too conservative. (The deep shot to Washington that was picked was too little, too late.) Tennessee seemed hell-bent on not taking shots that would stretch out the Colts defense, checking down and throwing short passes that featured Johnson far too often. Why, when so many teams have made so many big plays against Indy this season, were the Titans so willing to settle for short stuff?

Second-guess city: I backed the Titans decision to start and stick with Matt Hasselbeck into the fourth quarter. It’s easy to second guess now. But maybe Jake Locker’s mobility would have made a difference and opened things up. A veteran quarterback typically gets the benefit of the doubt, but given Hasselbeck’s poor performance and the result, Mike Munchak will have to expound on his rationale for going the direction he did.

What I wonder: How much will the Colts allow themselves to celebrate and enjoy this one when, as cathartic as it must be, it gets them to 1-13?

What’s next: The Colts have a quick turn and host division-leading Houston on Thursday night. The Texans beat the Colts on opening day. The Titans host Jacksonville on Christmas Eve. The Jaguars beat the Titans on opening day.

Rapid Reaction: Colts 27, Titans 13

December, 18, 2011
12/18/11
4:14
PM ET

INDIANAPOLIS -- Thoughts on the Colts’ 27-13 win over the Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium:

What it means: A happy day in Indy. The 2011 Colts won’t be joining the 2008 Detroit Lions in NFL annals as an 0-16 team. They played tight and efficient defense, rushed the passer well while not allowing big plays, took the ball away three times and ran the ball with some consistency en route to their first win. It was the first NFL win for Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who was also on that Lions team. The result effectively ended the Titans’ playoff hopes. Now 7-7 they’d need a ton of help to earn the last wild card spot at 9-7.

What I liked -- Colts: Big plays on defense. Maligned cornerback Jacob Lacey took a pass away from Chris Johnson and returned it 32 yards for a score. Pat Angerer killed the Titans when they looked to be getting things going in the fourth quarter, stripping Jared Cook for a fumble which was recovered by Chris Rucker. Angerer also picked off Hasselbeck in the end zone on a deep try for Nate Washington thrown as the quarterback got hit. The Colts got a consistently good push up front and matched it with tight coverage, allowing the Titans few big chunks. Outside of an awkward trip as he backed out from center and handed off, Orlovsky played with composure and decisiveness. The defense probably tackled as well as it has all season -- even on Chris Johnson’s late 35-yard run, Rucker caught him and pulled him down from behind.

What I didn’t like -- Titans: Yes, Matt Hasselbeck was under consistent pressure. But a combination of play-calling by offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and decision-making by Hasselbeck was far too conservative. (The deep shot to Washington that was picked was too little, too late.) Tennessee seemed hell-bent on not taking shots that would stretch out the Colts defense, checking down and throwing short passes that featured Johnson far too often. Why, when so many teams have made so many big plays against Indy this season, were the Titans so willing to settle for short stuff?

Second-guess city: I backed the Titans decision to start and stick with Matt Hasselbeck into the fourth quarter. It’s easy to second guess now. But maybe Jake Locker’s mobility would have made a difference and opened things up. A veteran quarterback typically gets the benefit of the doubt, but given Hasselbeck’s poor performance and the result, Mike Munchak will have to expound on his rationale for going the direction he did.

What I wonder: How much will the Colts allow themselves to celebrate and enjoy this one when, as cathartic as it must be, it gets them to 1-13?

What’s next: The Colts have a quick turn and host division-leading Houston on Thursday night. The Texans beat the Colts on opening day. The Titans host Jacksonville on Christmas Eve. The Jaguars beat the Titans on opening day.

Rapid Reaction: Chiefs 19, Packers 14

December, 18, 2011
12/18/11
4:12
PM ET

KANSAS CITY -- Some thoughts on a historic day at Arrowhead Stadium:

What it means: The Packers lost for the first time in 364 days, snapping a streak of 19 consecutive victories that ended two short of tying the NFL record. They missed a chance to clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, but at 13-1, they could secure it as early as Monday night if the San Francisco 49ers lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Still, injury concerns on the offensive line figure to be a big part of the football discussion in Green Bay this week.

Controlled: The result was no fluke. The Packers briefly led 7-6 in the third quarter but the Chiefs controlled this game for most of the afternoon. The Chiefs' offense controlled the ball for more than 37 minutes, punted only twice and got a 299-yard performance from quarterback Kyle Orton in his first start. They ground up yardage against the Packers' defense all afternoon and finished with 442 total yards.

RodgersWatch: Sunday was the worst game of the season for the Packers' passing game. I counted at least half a dozen drops, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers & Co. clearly had a hard time adjusting to life without receiver Greg Jennings. It was the first time all season Rodgers has completed fewer than half of his passes.

Missed challenge: Should Packers coach Mike McCarthy have challenged a key play midway through the fourth quarter, one that ultimately led to a Chiefs field goal? On the play, Chiefs tight end Leonard Pope appeared to fumble into the end zone at the end of a 33-yard reception. McCarthy decided against a challenge, but former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said via Twitter that the call would have been overturned on review and the ball awarded to the Packers. It might not have made an impact on the outcome, but you never know.

Injury report: The Packers finished the game with right guard T.J. Lang playing right tackle after injuries to starter Bryan Bulaga (knee) and backup Derek Sherrod (leg). Evan Dietrich-Smith replaced Lang at left guard, meaning the Packers had only two players -- center Scott Wells and right guard Josh Sitton -- in the positions they opened the season at.

What's next: Merry Christmas. The Packers will host the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field next Sunday night.

Rapid Reaction: Redskins 23, Giants 10

December, 18, 2011
12/18/11
4:08
PM ET

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A couple of thoughts on the Washington Redskins' shocking domination of the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.

What it means: The Giants can still win the division by winning their final two games, but their margin of error is gone now, and if they lose next week to the Jets and the Cowboys beat the Eagles, they will be eliminated before they even get their second crack at the Cowboys in Week 17. For the Redskins, who improve to 5-9, it means nothing in the standings. But if you're a Redskins fan, you have to feel very good about the way your team has been playing. They have nothing to play for right now besides pride, and on Sunday they played as though they were the team that was trying to get into the playoffs.

Rex the game manager: Twice, Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman threw deep early. Both times, he was intercepted. To their credit, the Redskins cut that right now. Grossman spent the rest of the game handing off and throwing short to a variety of receivers, managing the game and controlling the clock. The Redskins had the ball for 20:26 of the first half as they built a 20-3 lead, and they were able to eat up clock in the third quarter to prevent the Giants from getting a chance to make a comeback. For the second game in a row, the Redskins ran the ball on more than 50 percent of their offensive plays. They're 5-1 this season when they run it at least 40 percent of the time.

No Eli, no chance: The Giants are an awful defensive team, as they showed Sunday in no uncertain terms. And they can't run the ball at all. What that means is, when quarterback Eli Manning doesn't play well, they have no chance. This was Manning's worst game of the season, with three interceptions and no touchdowns, and they finally asked more of him than he could deliver. His receivers didn't help him, either. Hakeem Nicks dropped a sure 54-yard touchdown pass that hit him in the hands in the first quarter.

Hail to the Redskins' D: It's kind of like being the tallest dwarf, but the Redskins have the best defense in the NFC East. Their front seven excels at putting pressure on the quarterback. They use enough different and confusing looks to rattle opponents into mistakes. They race to the ball and play hard, and for most of the day their defensive backs were simply better than the Giants' very good wide receivers. Give the Redskins credit for devising and executing an excellent all-around game plan to sweep their division rivals.

Picking on the rook: Cornerback Prince Amukamara, the Giants' first-round pick, missed all of training camp and the first half of the season with a foot injury, and it shows. His mistakes in coverage look like confusion mistakes and poor communication mistakes, and those are the kinds of things that show up when you have a rookie effectively playing his first half-season in the pros. Other teams are seeing it, and going right after him, and as the Redskins showed repeatedly on Sunday, the Giants are especially vulnerable there.

What's next: The Giants play the New York Jets on Saturday in an afternoon game right back here at the Meadowlands. It's technically a "home" game for the Jets, who share the stadium with the Giants, but there should be plenty of Giants fans in attendance. The question is what kind of mood they'll be in. The Redskins have a home game against the Minnesota Vikings, which is a chance for a second straight victory.

Rapid Reaction: Cowboys 31, Bucs 15

December, 18, 2011
12/18/11
8:40
AM ET

TAMPA, Fla. -- This is what you're supposed to do.

The Cowboys beat up a weak Tampa Bay Buccaneers team 31-15 on Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium. The Cowboys ended their two-game losing streak, and quarterback Tony Romo moved to 3-0 lifetime against the Bucs. More importantly, this team can relax (well, for maybe a few hours) because it took care of business.

What it means: For a few hours, the Cowboys are in first place by themselves in the NFC East. The New York Giants will play the Washington Redskins on Sunday afternoon. If the Giants win, the teams go back to being tied. The Cowboys needed this victory. Things were tense all week in the locker room as a result of a two-game losing streak and losing a first-place lead.

Running game takes over: For the first time in his career, Felix Jones rushed for more than 100 yards in consecutive games. He carried 22 times for 108 yards. He ran with speed, power and fresh legs. There are always concerns about Jones' ability to carry the ball 20 times or more, especially the way Jason Garrett used DeMarco Murray in November. Sammy Morris did a nice job backing up Jones. He rushed for 53 yards on 12 carries. His only mistake was dropping a third-down pass with 10:09 to play. As a whole, the Cowboys rushed for 160 yards, the seventh time this season they ran more than 100 yards as a unit.

Defense plays well but ... : Josh Freeman led the NFL with 18 interceptions on the season. The Cowboys' secondary had no picks against him. But Dallas had two sacks, with DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lissemore picking things up. As the game progressed, Jay Ratliff and Ware sat so younger players could get on the field. However, after Freeman completed just two of four passes for 14 yards in the first half, he connected on 15 of 23 passes for 134 yards after halftime. There was a bad fourth-down completion against the Cowboys' defense when linebacker Sean Lee failed to wrap up running back Kregg Lumpkin on a short pass in the flat with about seven minutes to play in the game. The Cowboys sat the vets and, late in the game, sat the majority of their starters in their front seven.

Bennett brothers meet: Tight end Martellus Bennett faced his older brother, defensive end Michael Bennett, for the first time in their NFL careers. The tight end had three catches for 23 yards. The end had one sack and two tackles.

Smith injured: First-round pick Tyron Smith went down with an undisclosed injury with 1:48 to play in the game after a Morris run. Smith was able to walk off the field on his own power, but when he got to the sidelines, team doctors were checking his neck and head area.

What's next? The Cowboys take on the Philadelphia Eagles next Saturday at Cowboys Stadium. In the first meeting, the Eagles beat the Cowboys 34-7. Now, with so much on the line within the division, the Cowboys need to knock off the Eagles in the rematch to keep pace with the Giants or stay ahead of them.

Rapid Reaction: Cowboys 31, Bucs 15

December, 17, 2011
12/17/11
11:22
PM ET


TAMPA, Fla. -- Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 31-15 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium:

What it means: Wow, there’s a loaded question. The Bucs lost their eighth consecutive game. They now are 4-10. Their stadium had as many fans dressed in blue and white as it did in red or pewter, which was the only reason this game was the second home sellout of the past two seasons. I’ve tried to think of possible ways the Bucs could keep coach Raheem Morris for 2012, but I no longer can see any way that happens. In fact, as much as the Bucs may not like their options for an interim coach, ownership might have to pull the plug now, just to send a message to the fans.

Interim options: As long as we’re talking about the possibility of finishing the season with an interim coach, let’s examine the very limited possibilities. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson would be one. But the problem with Olson is he has no filter with the media and could say some things that might not come across well. Defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake might be the best choice. In theory, he could take over Morris’ play-calling duties for the defense. Then again, the Bucs could just play out the string with Morris and pull the plug the day after the season ends.

What I liked: Hey, there was a bright spot for the Buccaneers. First-round pick Adrian Clayborn continues to show signs he can play.

What I didn’t like: That could probably fill up a book, so I’ll try to be brief. The offense was horrible and quarterback Josh Freeman never got into any sort of rhythm. The defense couldn’t tackle or cover.

Worst stat: Prior to linebacker Dekoda Watson recovering a fumble and returning it for a touchdown early in the third quarter, the Bucs had been outscored 69-0 since jumping out to a 14-0 lead against Jacksonville two weeks ago.

Worst stat II: At just about the five-minute mark of the third quarter, the Cowboys had 23 first downs and the Bucs had one. Then, Tampa Bay exploded for its second first down of the night.

What’s next: The Buccaneers play the Carolina Panthers on Christmas Eve at Bank of America Stadium.

Rapid Reaction: Falcons 41, Jaguars 14

December, 15, 2011
12/15/11
11:18
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ATLANTA -- Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons’ 41-14 victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: The Falcons are 9-5 and very much in the playoff picture. They won with ease and might have put forth their most complete game of the season. There were explosive plays in the passing game and from the pass rush and it all came together in a short week. The best news of all might be that the Falcons can build off this performance because they’ll have a few extra days to get ready for their next game, which might be the biggest game of the season (see below). With the big lead, coach Mike Smith began resting some of his starters late in the third quarter. The extra time off might allow the Falcons to get injured cornerbacks Brent Grimes (knee) and Kelvin Hayden (toe) back in the lineup.

Throwback game: Defensive end John Abraham is 33 and, because he came into the game with just five sacks on the season, there was some talk that age was catching up to him. But Abraham showed he’s got something left in the tank. He had 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and was a major reason Jacksonville couldn’t get anything going in the passing game. Abraham had plenty of help. Defensive tackle Corey Peters and defensive end Ray Edwards also were productive in the pass rush.

Milestone time: Atlanta’s Roddy White went over 1,000 receiving yards for the fifth consecutive season, a franchise record. White also became just the eighth receiver in NFL history to have five straight 1,000-yard seasons with at least 80 catches in each season. White started slowly this year, but has come on strong lately. He caught two touchdowns against the Jaguars and now has at least one touchdown catch in each of the past four games.

What I liked: The Falcons were consistently good throughout the game. I don’t think you could say that about their previous 13 games.

What I didn’t like: Rookie punter Matt Bosher was having a good game, until he had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown in the third quarter.

Troubling trend: Running back Michael Turner was held under 100 rushing yards for the fourth consecutive game. Since his arrival in Atlanta in 2008, Turner has had only one other four-game stretch in which he failed to reach 100 yards.

What’s next: The Falcons play the Saints in a "Monday Night Football" game in New Orleans on Dec. 26.

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