NFL Nation: 2011 Week 16 coverage

Rapid Reaction: Saints 45, Falcons 16

December, 26, 2011

NEW ORLEANS -- Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints’ 45-16 victory against the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

What it means: The Saints (12-3) clinched the NFC South, which means they’ll be one of the top four seeds in the playoffs. They still have a shot at going as high as the No. 2 seed, but they’ll need to win their finale and hope San Francisco loses. The Falcons (9-6) already are in the playoffs, but now they can’t do any better than the No. 5 seed. Also, New Orleans’ victory means that, once again, no team has won the NFC South in consecutive years since the division came into existence in 2002.

Record time: With two minutes and 51 seconds left in the game, Drew Brees made history. With a touchdown pass to Darren Sproles, Brees broke Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a season. Marino had 5,084 yards in 1984. Brees came into the game needing 305 yards to break the record. He finished with 307 yards. Brees also threw four touchdown passes.

The Sproles factor: I might be overlooking someone, but I don’t think I’m too far off in saying Sproles was the best free-agent signing in the NFL this year. Sproles has made huge contributions as a runner, receiver and a return man. Early this season, I still saw some fans wearing Reggie Bush jerseys. I don’t think I’ve seen one in a couple of months.

The great debate: After watching the Saints absolutely dominate what had been a good Atlanta team for the past month or so, I think it’s fair to start talking about how the Saints match up with the Green Bay Packers. Remember, the Saints took the Packers down to the wire in the season opener at Lambeau Field. I know for certain the Saints are a better team now than they were in September. Yeah, you can bring San Francisco into the argument too, but that kind of waters things down. The Saints and Packers play great offense and a postseason game between them would be as exciting a game as you could ask for.

What I didn't like: From an Atlanta perspective, the way the Falcons lost this game had to be demoralizing. The Falcons had seemed to be on a roll in recent weeks. They’re already in the playoffs and they should have an easy finale. But the momentum Atlanta had built over the past month or so has been shattered. If they somehow end up facing the Saints again in the playoffs, that’s not a good psychological matchup. The Saints have defeated the Falcons twice already and that’s got to be in the heads of the Atlanta players.

What's next: The Saints host the Carolina Panthers in the regular-season finale on Sunday. The Falcons host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Rapid Reaction: Packers 35, Bears 21

December, 25, 2011
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Some thoughts on a rare blowout between NFC North rivals:

What it means: The Green Bay Packers improved to 14-1, setting a franchise record for victories in a season and clinching home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. They'll have a decision to make on how to approach Week 17, which will carry no playoff implications for them. Coach Mike McCarthy has previously indicated he wouldn't veer from his regular lineup in that situation, but we'll see. The injury-devastated Chicago Bears lost their fifth consecutive game and were officially eliminated from playoff contention.

RivalryWatch: The Packers have now swept the Bears in the teams' season series in two of the past three years. Overall, the Packers have won five of the past six games between the two teams. It was the biggest margin of defeat for either team in the series since their first meeting in 2008, a 37-3 Packers victory.

RodgersWatch: Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had the first five-touchdown game of his career, throwing two apiece to receivers Jordy Nelson and James Jones and another to tight end Jermichael Finley. Rodgers completed his first eight passes and finished 21 of 29 for 283 yards. Along the way, he broke Lynn Dickey's franchise record for passing yards in a season and now has 4,739. He also extended his team record for touchdown passes in a season; he's now at 45. Finally, Rodgers set a new NFL record by recording a 13th game with a passer rating of at least 100.0 in a single season. Sunday's rating was a cool 142.7.

McCownWatch: Bears quarterback Josh McCown performed much more credibly than I'm sure most people expected. I suppose some of you might be turned off by his dunk over the crossbar after taking in a 2-point conversion in the fourth quarter. I thought it was fun. This is a guy that hadn't started a game since 2007 and began the fall coaching high school football. McCown never imagined he would be starting a game again on national television. Give him a break. The Bears smartly limited his opportunities with a steady diet of running plays in the first half and into the third quarter. Bears running back Kahlil Bell ran hard and had 121 yards on 23 carries, and overall the Bears rushed for 199 yards. But that sort of offense can't keep up with the opponents go on a scoring spree. That began midway through the third quarter, a 21-0 run that quashed the Bears' game plan.

Injury report: Packers running back James Starks again left with an ankle injury that looks like it's going to be a factor for a while. This has been going on for more than a month. The Bears lost right tackle Lance Louis to a illness in the first half and he returned only as part of a goal-line set thereafter. Frank Omiyale replaced him at right tackle.

What's next: The Packers will host the Detroit Lions next Sunday in a game that will have relevance only for the Lions, whose postseason seeding -- No. 5 or No. 6 -- has yet to be determined. The Bears will close out this disappointing season with a game at the Minnesota Vikings.

Wrap-up: Lions 38, Chargers 10

December, 24, 2011
A few thoughts on a momentous day and evening in Detroit:

What it means: The Detroit Lions clinched their first playoff berth since 1999 in convincing fashion, jumping on the San Diego Chargers for 24 first-half points and finishing strongly as well. The victory caps a three-year overhaul from the franchise's darkest moment, the 0-16 season in 2008, and cements the status of a new set of heroes for Detroit sports fans. For those asking, we don't yet know if the Lions will be the No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the NFC playoffs.

Turning point: The Chargers threatened to make a game of it the third quarter, recovering an onside kick moments after closing the gap to 24-7 midway through the quarter. But on third-and-goal at the 4-yard line, cornerback Chris Houston broke up a pass intended for receiver Malcom Floyd in the end zone. The Chargers were forced to kick a field goal, a clear momentum swing that they never recovered from. Kudos to Houston for his play, which also included an interception and a total of four defensed passes.

StaffordWatch: There's no other way to say it: Matthew Stafford and the entire Lions passing offense were dealing all game long. From the opening play, a 46-yard jump ball that receiver Calvin Johnson caught against double coverage, the Lions had their way with the Chargers' defense. Stafford's final numbers: 29 completions in 36 attempts for 373 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 137.6 passer rating. In his past three games, Stafford has thrown for nearly 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns. Obviously, that's how you want a franchise quarterback to respond in the playoff push. In the process, he set a new Lions record for the most passing yards in a season. It now stands at 4,518 yards.

Composure: Circumstances conspired to whip the team into a frenzy, and center Dominic Raiola was among those who let his pregame emotions get the best of him. I saw Raiola's pushing and shoving before the game and wondered if we were in for another penalty-filled, out-of-control performance. But the Lions appear to have put that phase of their season behind them. They were called for only three accepted penalties, losing a total of eight yards, and kept their composure throughout the afternoon. There was a moment when I thought tight end Tony Scheffler was going to go after a Chargers player post-whistle, but he smartly held back. Coach Jim Schwartz's no-tolerance policy has worked.

Rewards: I'm sure many Lions fans were thinking Saturday of friends and loved ones who suffered through years and years of substandard, playoff-less years of football. I couldn't help but marvel at how much bad football that longtime Lions beat writer Tom Kowalski covered in his 30-plus years on the job. Kowalski passed away last August, just before this wild season kicked off. Beat writers don't root for the teams they cover, but take it from experience, covering a playoff team is a lot more interesting than the alternative.

What's next: The Lions will close out the regular season -- and turn their attention TO THE PLAYOFFS -- next Sunday at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers.

Rapid Reaction: Eagles 20, Cowboys 7

December, 24, 2011

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The game didn't mean much thanks to the Giants' win over the Jets earlier Saturday, but the Cowboys didn't play well the entire day.

Philadelphia, with nothing to play for either, beat the Dallas Cowboys, 20-7, at Cowboys Stadium.

Jerry Jones said this week that he was scared of the Eagles, but he should be scared of what next week might represent: A loss to the Giants in the regular-season finale could end the Cowboys' hopes of a postseason berth.

What it means: The Cowboys lost quarterback Tony Romo to a hand injury and any potential momentum going into the the Giants game next Sunday. The loss also raised more questions about the defense, which struggled in pass coverage and wrapping up Michael Vick. It's the first time the Eagles have swept the Cowboys since 2006.

Home shutout avoided: The Cowboys avoided being shut out for the first time in the three-year history of Cowboys Stadium with Miles Austin's 4-yard touchdown reception with seven seconds left. It would have been the first time the Cowboys were shut out in a home game since Sept. 15, 1991. The Cowboys have gone 20 years, three months and nine days between shutouts -- Philadelphia blanked Dallas, 24-0 at Texas Stadium.

Tony Romo injures hand: Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo injured his right hand on the fourth offensive play of the game when Jason Babin smashed into him on third down. Romo did not return and had his right hand wrapped. Stephen McGee finished the game despite getting hit a few times himself. This is the first time Romo started a game and didn't complete a pass. He was 0-for-2.

Jason Garrett plays the starters: When the Cowboys took the field Saturday afternoon, the Giants-Jets game had yet to finish. If the Giants had lost, the Cowboys would have clinched the NFC East with a win. With several players nicked up, including starters Felix Jones (hamstring), Jay Ratliff (ribs) and DeMarcus Ware (neck), there was a thought Garrett would rest them. He didn't. Jones played fewer than five snaps in the game, and Ware and Ratliff played well into the fourth quarter.

What's next? The NFC East divisional championship game. The Cowboys take on the Giants at Met Life Stadium, with the winner clinching a playoff spot. However, there are scenarios in which the Cowboys can clinch a wild-card berth with a lot of help. But New Year's Day will determine the Cowboys' fate. It's a reminder of the ending of the 2008 season, in which a Cowboys victory at Philadelphia would have sent them to the postseason. The Eagles won, 44-6.

Wrap-up: Raiders 16, Chiefs 13 (OT)

December, 24, 2011

A look at a thrilling 16-13 Oakland win:

What it means: The Raiders are still alive. The Chiefs are not. When Sebastian Janikowski’s 36-yard field goal went through the uprights, the Raiders became 8-7 and tied with Denver for first place in the AFC West. Denver owns the tiebreaker and can win the division title with a home win against the Chiefs next Sunday. Oakland will win the division with a home win against San Diego and a Kansas City win at Denver. If the Chargers lose at Detroit on Saturday, and if Denver and Oakland both lose in Week 17, Denver will win the division. Oakland is a game out in the wild-card race. It will need to win next week and hope for some help to make it as a wild card. Kansas City fell to 6-9 and was eliminated from playoff contention. It won the AFC West last year. It was Oakland’s fifth straight win at Kansas City, which is a team record. The Chiefs have gone eight straight games in which it has scored 19 points or less.

Big arm at the right time: After winning the coin flip to open overtime, Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer hit Darrius Heyward-Bey for a 53-yard reception deep in Kansas City territory to set up the game-winning field goal. Palmer was decent on Saturday, but he came up big when he was most needed.

Seymour is a chip off the old block: Oakland defensive lineman Richard Seymour blocked two Ryan Succop 49-yard field goal attempts, including one at the end of regulation. Succop had tied a team record of 22 straight field goals made before the first block.

No shame for Romeo: I wouldn’t think this loss severely damaged Romeo Crennel’s hope to become the permanent head coach. Kansas City beat Green Bay last week to help Crennel’s chances. The Chiefs played hard on Saturday under Crennel and that will go a long way in helping his cause when the Chiefs evaluate the situation after the season.

Orton not great: In his second start as the Chiefs’ quarterback, Kyle Orton was just OK as he compiled 21 of 36 passes for 300 yards. Orton, though, threw two interceptions with the Chiefs driving that ending up killing Kansas City. The Chiefs are 2-for-9 in the red zone with Orton.

Penalties pile up: There were 26 penalties for 180 yards. Oakland was penalized 15 times for 92 yards. The Raiders are on pace to set an NFL record for penalties and penalties yardage in a season.

Wasting a fake: A penalty wiped out an Oakland touchdown on a fake field goal. That’s terrible. Sooner or later, opponents are going to catch onto Hue Jackson’s penchant for fakes. To waste a touchdown on a penalty is horrible.

Good defense: Both defenses failed late, but they both hung in for the most part. Oakland came into the game allowing 13 touchdowns in the past three games.

Bowe comes up big when it counts: Kansas City receiver Dwayne Bowe was great at the end of the game and he tied the game with a short touchdown reception; it was his first score in 53 catches.

What’s next: Oakland hosts San Diego and Kansas City plays at Denver.

Wrap-up: Bengals 23, Cardinals 16

December, 24, 2011
Thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 23-16 win over the Arizona Cardinals:

What it means: With the Jets losing, the Bengals (9-6) took back the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC and control their playoff fate. Cincinnati can clinch a playoff spot by beating Baltimore next weekend. The Bengals won their second straight game after losing four of their past five games. Cincinnati improved to 8-0 against teams that don't currently have a winning record.

Surviving a scare: The Bengals ran out to a 23-0 lead before having to sweat out the fourth quarter. Unlike a couple weeks ago against Houston, the Bengals were able to stop a backup quarterback from a monumental comeback. With a chance to tie, Arizona wide receiver Early Doucet was uncovered at the goal line but fell as he ran. That let a fourth-down pass fall incomplete with 71 seconds remaining.

Touchdown of the year: It was a jaw-dropping start for the Bengals, and it had nothing to do with the team scoring the first 23 points of the game. Jerome Simpson delivered one of the top highlights of the season when he somersaulted over a defender into the end zone from three yards out and landed on his feet. You felt like he deserved more than the six points.

Dalton joins elite company: Andy Dalton finished 18 of 31 for 154 yards but he did have something to remember. With two touchdown passes, Dalton joined Peyton Manning, Charlie Conerly and Dan Marino as the only NFL rookies to throw 20 touchdowns.

Poor showing: The Bengals secured only their third winning record in the past 21 years, although few in Cincinnati witnessed it. An announced crowd of 41,273 watched at Paul Brown Stadium. This came close to the smallest crowd in the 12-year history of the stadium (41,142), which was set earlier this season.

What's next: The Bengals finish up the regular season by hosting the Baltimore Ravens. The Bengals lost to the Ravens, 31-24, on Nov. 20 in Baltimore.

Wrap-up: Steelers 27, Rams 0

December, 24, 2011

Thoughts on the Steelers' 27-0 win over the Rams:

What it means: By routing the Rams (2-13), the Steelers (11-4) kept their hopes of an AFC North title alive and secured no worse than the No. 5 seed in the playoffs. Pittsburgh still needs the Ravens to lose in next weekend's regular-season finale to have any shot at the division title and a top-two seed. It was the Steelers' fifth win in six games.

No Roethlisberger, no sweat: The Steelers kept injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (ankle) active in case of an emergency, but there was nothing to worry about in this one. Charlie Batch was 15-of-22 for 208 yards in a workmanlike fill-in performance. His 46-yard pass to Mike Wallace in the fourth quarter set up a touchdown to increase the lead to 20-0 and essentially sealed the win.

Pound and ground: As expected, the Steelers hammered the NFL's worst run defense by gaining 169 yards on the ground on 28 attempts. Rashard Mendenhall recorded his second 100-yard game of the season with 116 yards and one touchdown. He almost had 100 yards by halftime. Mendenhall's longest run was 52 yards.

Dominating defense: The Steelers delivered their second shutout of the season and both times came against an NFC West team at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh limited the NFL's lowest scoring team to 232 yards. This was the second time in December that the Rams got shut out. The defense sacked Kellen Clemens three times.

Quiet yet impressive: Antonio Brown was a non-factor in the game with three catches for 34 yards. But Brown set a new franchise record with 2,048 all-purpose yards on the season. The second-year wide receiver broke the record of Barry Foster, who had 2,034 yards in 1992.

What's next: The Steelers wrap up the regular season at the Cleveland Browns. Pittsburgh beat the Browns, 14-3, earlier this month.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 29, Jets 14

December, 24, 2011

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The big-talking New York Jets sabotaged their playoff chances with a mistake-filled loss to the New York Giants, 29-14 Saturday at MetLife Stadium.

What it means: The Jets (8-7) dropped their second straight and fell a game behind the Cincinnati Bengals (9-6). They also fell into a tie with the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans. In short, they choked their brains out.

Humble pie: If the Jets played as big as Rex Ryan talks, they'd be Super Bowl-bound. But they're a mediocre team with an average quarterback, making Ryan, he of the incessant trash talking, look like the fool.

Deep freeze: Inexcusable. That's the only way to describe the Jets' offensive performance. Facing the 29th-ranked pass defense, the Jets scored on their first possession -- and then failed to score again until midway in the fourth quarter, an 11-yard drive after a takeaway. They were brutal on third down, and the Giants' pass rush wasn't a factor until the second half.

QB Mark Sanchez (30-for-59, 258 yards) struggled with his accuracy, his receivers couldn't gain consistent separation and … well, it was a mess. They should've been able to move the ball against the Giants, the league's lowest-rated third-down defense since Week 11. The Jets made them look like the Giants of Taylor, Carson and Banks.

If the Jets don't make the playoffs and they look for a scapegoat, the top candidate will be offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. This was a terrible game by Schottenheimer. He gave up on the run too early and, inexplicably, he had Sanchez in shotgun, throwing deep, on a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter.

The offensive ineptitude afforded the defense a slim margin for error -- and it got burned.

Mark vs. Eli: This wasn't a vintage quarterback duel, that's for sure. Sanchez is supposed to be a big-game quarterback, but he took a step backward. It makes you wonder if his lingering neck injury, an apparent pinched nerve, was a factor. Either way, Sanchez will wear the goat horns. With a chance to get back in the game, he fumbled a snap at Giants' 2. It wasn’t a good snap by C Nick Mangold. Either way, they failed to execute the most basic play in football.

Tone deaf: For the second week in a row, Santonio Holmes choked. This time, he didn't get any stupid penalties, but he dropped two passes.

The play from hell: The Jets' defense dominated the first 28 minutes, limiting the Giants to only 83 yards on their first 25 plays. The 26th play was a killer -- Victor Cruz's 99-yard touchdown. Credit Cruz, who made a brilliant stop-cut on a routine, 10-yard catch, but the Jets helped him make the longest play in Giants history.

Nickel back Kyle Wilson and CB Antonio Cromartie were in the immediate area, and Cromartie whiffed. S Eric Smith tried to chase him down at midfield, but he slipped off Cruz like a snowball on a heat shield.

If the Jets don't make the playoffs, Cruz's TD and Tim Tebow's game-winning TD run in Denver -- also involving Smith -- will be remembered as the moments that wrecked the season.

Safety dance: Do the Jets miss Jim Leonhard, or what? Smith and Brodney Pool missed tackles on both Giants touchdowns. In the third quarter, Pool got trucked by Ahmad Bradshaw on a 14-yard scoring run. Pool suffered a possible concussion and was taken to the locker room. Moments earlier, Pool was late in deep help on a 46-yard pass to Cruz.

Safety has to be on their offseason shopping list.

Revis answers: Darrelle Revis is a pretty decent cornerback for a "decent" corner, as Giants WR Hakeem Nicks called him. Revis was tested, but he responded with excellent coverage, including a pass break-up in the end zone. He also caused a deflection that was intercepted by LB David Harris. Revis dominated.

What's ahead: The Jets close the season in Miami, and it won't be easy. The Dolphins, led by interim coach Todd Bowles, lost a close one, 27-24 to New England.

Wrap-up: Bills 40, Broncos 14

December, 24, 2011

A look at an AFC West-tightening game in Buffalo, with the Bills winning 40-14.

What it means: The Broncos made their life a little tougher as they fell to 8-7. Still, the Broncos control their own destiny. They can win the AFC West title with a win against the Chiefs at home next week. What is most alarming is how lopsided the loss was. The Broncos have not played well in the past two games, losing to New England and Buffalo by a combined 44 points.

Streak buster: The victory snapped Buffalo's seven-game losing streak. It also snapped a five-game road winning streak for Denver.

Got Buffaloed again: In Week 16 in 2008, Buffalo beat Denver to keep the Broncos from clinching a playoff spot. Denver ended up out of the playoffs. Could a Buffalo win over Denver in Week 16 help knock the Broncos out of the postseason again?

Terrible day for Tim Tebow: The beauty of Tebow has been his lack of turnovers. That changed at Buffalo. Tebow threw four interceptions. Two of the picks were brought back for touchdowns 19 seconds apart. Tebow took a big step back this week after taking a step forward last week.

Denver’s D was decent: Despite giving up 40 points, Denver’s defense only gave up one touchdown. In addition to the two defensive scores, Buffalo had a punt return for a score. Denver’s defense gave up four field goals. Denver has allowed 81 points in the past two games, but most of the problems have not been defense-related.

What’s next: Again, Denver still controls its own destiny. It will win the AFC West with a win against the visiting Chiefs next Sunday.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 29, Jets 14

December, 24, 2011

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A few thoughts on the New York Giants' potentially season-saving 29-14 victory over the New York Jets on Saturday afternoon at MetLife Stadium.

What it means: A couple of things. First, it means next Sunday's game between the Giants and the Dallas Cowboys here at MetLife will decide the NFC East. The winner advances to the playoffs as division champ. The Cowboys could theoretically still make it as a wild card if they beat the Eagles this afternoon, but the Giants' only way in is to win the game and the division. This Giants win also means that the Philadelphia Eagles are, at long last, eliminated from contention for this year's postseason.

Toughening up: In their previous five games, the Giants had allowed opponents to convert 54 percent of their third downs. But in this game, the Jets were a miserable 4-for-21 on third down. The Giants' coverage in the secondary was drastically improved in this game, and they were able to generate enough pressure to rattle Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and disrupt a surprisingly pass-heavy Jets offensive game plan. The offense played its second straight shaky game, but this time the defense was able to bail it out by making a few big stops.

The big play: The Jets were manhandling the Giants on defense in the first half, but with a little more than two minutes left before halftime, Eli Manning completed a 99-yard touchdown pass to Victor Cruz that put the Giants on top 10-7. It was the play of the game and possibly, as it turns out, the Giants' season, as it sent the Jets into the halftime locker room demoralized and apparently determined to throw the ball to make up for it.

Touchy at the end: The Giants appeared to have the game locked up when they recovered a fumble in the end zone at the end of a long Jets drive. But even though they were up 20-7, they came out throwing, and Manning threw an interception on the first play that the Jets would later convert into a touchdown. The Jets got the ball back at their own eight-yard line with 2:24 left, but the Chris Canty sacked Sanchez in the end zone for the safety that sealed the Giants' win.

What's next: The Giants host the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday here at MetLife Stadium in the game that will decide the division title.

Wrap-up: Bills 40, Broncos 14

December, 24, 2011

Here are some thoughts on the Buffalo Bills' 40-14 victory over the Denver Broncos:

What it means: The Bills (6-9) avoided getting "Tebowed" and broke a season-high seven-game losing streak. Buffalo took a nine-point lead into the fourth quarter and finished strong by scoring 17 unanswered points. That was too much for any late-game magic from Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who was picked off four times by Buffalo. With the offense scoring points and the defense forcing turnovers, Buffalo played much like it did during its fast start in the first month of the season.

What I liked: Buffalo received a pair of huge contributions from its former first-round picks. Running back C.J. Spiller recorded his first career 100-yard rushing game with 111 yards and one touchdown. Spiller is doing a good job filling in for the injured Fred Jackson (leg). Cornerback Leodis McKelvin, also a former first-round pick, has been mostly a disappointment in the secondary. But McKelvin showed off his return skills with an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown. McKelvin also set a franchise record with 135 punt return yards. Buffalo's special teams made the difference in this game.

What I didn't like: There isn't much to complain about in this game from Buffalo's perspective. Buffalo's offense was 2-for-12 on third-down conversions. But that's nitpicking an otherwise very good performance by the Bills.

What's next: The Bills will conclude their season on New Year’s Day against the New England Patriots. It will be a rematch of Buffalo's 34-31 victory over the Patriots in Week 3.

Rapid Reaction: Titans 23, Jaguars 17

December, 24, 2011

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Thoughts on the Tennessee Titans’ 23-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars at LP Field Stadium.

What it means: The Titans remain alive for the No. 6 seed in the AFC with a win that moved them to 8-7. They still need a win at Houston and help to qualify for the postseason. The Jaguars fell to 4-11.

What I liked, Titans: A week after the Titans were far too conservative against a Colts defense lacking in the secondary, they found a weak spot to attack down field against a team missing three starters in the secondary. Tight end Jared Cook caught eight passes for 169 yards and a touchdown, finding himself alone with middle linebacker Paul Posluszny a few times. That’s a franchise record for tight end receiving yards in a game. Dave Casper had 150 for the Oilers in 1980.

What I didn’t like, Jaguars: The Jaguars had too many three-and-outs and were in third-and-long far too often. With ineffective plays on first downs, they just couldn’t get a lot of drives started. The defense set things up several times. They had two interceptions and a fumble recovery that could have really gotten them back in the game, but the offense managed to convert them into just 10 points.

Second-guess city: A pass play on fourth-and-1 from the Tennessee 9-yard line wound up intercepted by Michael Griffin. It’s easy to say they should have handed off to Maurice Jones-Drew. But they should have handed off to Maurice Jones-Drew.

What I wonder: How in the world can Jones-Drew top 100 yards and be in the lead for the rushing title when the Jaguars passing offense has been so ineffective this season?

What’s next: The Titans head for Houston, where they hope to mess up Houston's playoff positioning and squeeze into the postseason field. The Jaguars host the Indianapolis Colts. If they beat Indianapolis, the Jaguars assure Indianapolis of the top pick in the April draft.

Wrap-up: Panthers 48, Buccaneers 16

December, 24, 2011

Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers48-16 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

What it means: The Panthers are 6-9 and won’t finish last in the NFC South. That’s because the Buccaneers (4-11) clinched that. This is a classic late-season case of one team soaring and another falling faster than anyone could have imagined. The Panthers are going to head into the offseason with tons of optimism because they already have a high-powered offense. All they need is to get a few injured players back, tweak their defense a bit and they sure look like playoff contenders for the 2012 season. Tampa Bay lost its ninth straight game. Coach Raheem Morris made a big deal of “the race to 10 (wins)’’ last year. Looks like the Bucs are racing to 10 straight losses to end this season. Nice progress.

Best record: Peyton Manning’s record for passing yards by a rookie (3,739) had stood since 1998. But it’s been broken now. Carolina’s Cam Newton passed it early in the first quarter. Oh, by the way, Newton also had his 14th rushing touchdown of the season, the most ever by a quarterback.

Best performance by a newcomer: Carolina safety Jonathan Nelson was signed off the practice squad this week due to an injury to Charles Godfrey. Nelson got the start and came up with an interception in the third quarter.

The Morris watch: There’s no question Morris is on the hot seat as his team has fallen apart since starting 4-2. I know there’s a small minority out there who say Morris should keep his job, replace himself as defensive coordinator and make a switch at offensive coordinator. Yeah, that’s brilliant and no doubt would put the Bucs straight into the Super Bowl next season. Actually, it’s ludicrous. It’s like having a refrigerator that hasn’t worked in more than two months and saying, “No need to call a repairman or get a new one because this thing just might kick in at any moment." The Bucs keep taking steps back and the team is in total disarray. There’s also the matter of Morris’ contract, which runs through 2012. If the Bucs somehow were even thinking about keeping Morris, they’d have to extend him because you can’t go into a season with a lame-duck coach (just ask the Panthers how that worked out with John Fox last year). If you do, you run the risk of the players tuning out the coach. Looks like some of that already has happened. It would be awfully tough to give Morris an extension as a reward for the way the Bucs have finished this season. I’m sure the fan base would be thrilled if that happens.

The Rob Chudzinski watch: Chudzinski is the offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers and his name is getting thrown about as a potential candidate for a job as a head coach. Yeah, maybe the Bucs go out and find a bigger name — and maybe they can’t. But the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, should have been watching this game and saying, “Hmm, this Chudzinski guy is doing a pretty nice job with a rookie quarterback. Maybe we should put him on the list.’’

Blount benched: Running back LeGarrette Blount lost a fumble on Tampa Bay’s first offensive play. He was benched after that and the Bucs went with Kregg Lumpkin and Mossis Madu, before Blount was inserted back into the game in the third quarter. Nice to see Morris using discipline. Then again, it’s probably too little too late.

What’s next: The Panthers finish their season Jan. 1 at New Orleans. The Buccaneers play their final game the same day in Atlanta.

Rapid Reaction: Ravens 20, Browns 14

December, 24, 2011

BALTIMORE -- Thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 20-14 win over the Cleveland Browns:

What it means: Even though they struggled to put away the Browns in the second half, the Ravens (11-4) move on step closer to the AFC North title, a home playoff game and a first-round bye. Baltimore can clinch all of that with a win at Cincinnati next Sunday. The Ravens went undefeated at home for the first time in team history and won for the 10th straight time at M&T Bank Stadium. The Browns (4-11) lost for eighth time in nine games, including five in a row.

Dumb penalty: The Browns made some inexcusable mistakes in this game but none more than the one with two minutes remaining. On fourth-and-2, the Ravens lined up obviously looking to get the Browns to jump offside -- and rookie nose tackle Phil Taylor did. Taylor grabbed his helmet in disbelief, but it allowed the Ravens to run out the final minutes of the game.

Return problems: Josh Cribbs broke the Browns' shutout in the third quarter when he returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown. It was the third touchdown allowed by the Ravens special teams this year (two on punt and one on kickoff). This is the first time that Baltimore has allowed multiple touchdowns on punt returns since 2002. Cribbs has 11 touchdowns off returns, but this was the longest of his career.

Bad decision: Down 17-0, the Browns made a head-scratcher of a decision to end the first half. On second-and-goal at the 3-yard line, the Browns chose to run the ball in the final seconds without any timeouts. Peyton Hillis was stopped for no gain with about five seconds remaining, and Cleveland went into halftime without any points. It was just a poor decision by coach Pat Shurmur, who should have either thrown the ball in that situation or kicked the field goal.

Can't cover: It was a rough first half for Cleveland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. He allowed both touchdowns in pass coverage -- a 5-yarder on a back-shoulder throw to Ed Dickson and a 42-yarder to Ray Rice on a wheel route.

Showing strong leg: Shayne Graham more than filled in for Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, converting from 48 and 43 yards. Cundiff was inactive because of a left calf injury. It will be interesting how the Ravens handle the kicking situation next Sunday.

What's next: The Ravens end the regular season at the Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns close it out by hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Wrap-up: Vikings 33, Redskins 26

December, 24, 2011

A few thoughts on an eventful and costly 33-26 victory at FedEx Field:

What it means: The Minnesota Vikings snapped a six-game losing steak and avoided tying the franchise record for consecutive losses. But it came at a price. Tailback Adrian Peterson (left knee) and quarterback Christian Ponder (concussion) suffered injuries on consecutive plays in the third quarter, and Peterson's injury appeared particularly gruesome. Also, by winning their third game this season, the Vikings eliminated themselves from contention for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft.

PetersonWatch: The Vikings will keep their fingers crossed on Peterson, but he was unable to put any weight on the knee as he was helped off the field and later needed a cart to get to the locker room. The late-season timing of this injury, if it includes a torn ligament, could threaten Peterson's availability for the start of the 2012 season.

WebbWatch: Backup quarterback Joe Webb once again played like gangbusters after Ponder departed, accounting for three touchdowns -- two through the air and one on the ground. The Vikings' energy level with Webb in the game is unmistakable.

End of run I: Safety Mistral Raymond's fourth-quarter interception of Rex Grossman was the Vikings' first in 10 games, ending a run that set a new NFL record. It came at a critical moment and set up the possession that made it a two-score game with about four minutes remaining. The Vikings entered the game with an NFL-low six interceptions this season.

End of run II: Longtime athletic trainer and current team historian Fred Zamberletti had attended every game in Vikings history before Saturday, a streak of 1,049 games including pre- and post-season. Zamberletti, 79, is ill and was unable to make the trip.

What's next: The Vikings will close out the regular season next Sunday by hosting the Chicago Bears.




Sunday, 2/2