Editor's Note: Chris Mortensen offers his usual array of Top-Five Lists to summarize NFL Week 15.
So as we live with parity in the NFL, my take always has been, let's see what happens in December and January. It's the time of year when a good team can become a great team. Maybe there will be one. Maybe there will be two, three or four.
The Philadelphia Eagles (11-3) are on the brink of becoming a great team. Their steadiness has grown into a playoff readiness.
|Coach Andy Reid has done for the 11-3 Eagles what Bill Belichick has done for the 12-2 Patriots.|
During Philly's nine-game winning streak, which hit a peak Monday night in an impressive 34-27 win over the desperate Miami Dolphins (8-6), there were times when you said, OK, they're getting better.
But since the Eagles beat the Green Bay Packers 17-14 in a strange Monday night game Nov. 10, they have been on a roll. They have outscored the Giants, Saints, Panthers, Cowboys and Dolphins by a cumulative 156-83 total, averaging 31 points per game.
The Eagles' offense isn't quite Rams' spectacular, but it has come together nicely. Sure, the wide receivers are average, but they occasionally make plays. Eagles coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Brad Childress (one of the emerging head-coach candidates) utilize their other weapons with great design. And the best of those weapons are Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook, who is a triple threat as a runner, receiver and returner.
Westbrook joins Correll Buckhalter and Duce Staley in what is just about the most effective three-headed backfield I've seen in recent years. Throw in tight ends Chad Lewis and rookie L.J. Smith, along with McNabb's poised mastery of the offense, and you've got a good team that has become really good with a chance to get great.
Reid has coached his team as well as Bill Belichick has coached the New England Patriots.
Which brings me to this shift in my post-Week 15 Super Bowl predictions: Eagles vs. Patriots. Yes, I'm open to the Rams still winning the NFC, and I still have a fascination with the Packers if QB Brett Favre's thumb continues to heal.
In the AFC, the Colts, Titans and Chiefs certainly can make a run. The Broncos are interesting, and I wouldn't want to be the team to play the Ravens at home in the first round of the playoffs -- if the Ravens edge the Bengals in the AFC North. But, for now, it's the Patriots and Eagles. And here are my top five lists:
Best Games: Week 15
1. Bengals 41, 49ers 38 -- In light of what was to come when the other Bay Area team, the Raiders, beat the Ravens, the suspense of Cincinnati's highly entertaining win over the 49ers was an impact game that changed the landscape of the AFC North.
2. Broncos 23, Browns 20 (OT) -- Cleveland showed some heart, but the Broncos made the big plays that allowed them to escape what could have been a devastating defeat.
3. Rams 27, Seahawks 22 -- With a lot on the line, coach Mike Martz put it on his line and his best player (Marshall Faulk) to clinch the NFC West.
4. Titans 28, Bills 26 -- Down 17-6 with QB Steve McNair on ice all day, a cool backup, Billy Volek, led Tennessee from behind against the AFC's No. 1 defense.
5. Eagles 34, Dolphins 27 -- So you expected a defensive struggle? Plenty of big plays, especially by the Eagles, made this a most worthwhile watch on MNF.
Most Impressive in Victory
1. Eagles 34, Dolphins 27 -- On the road against a desperate Dolphins team, the Eagles pulled out all the tricks and won their ninth straight.
2. Colts 38, Falcons 7 -- True, it was QB Peyton Manning's show, but the defense annihilated Falcons QB Michael Vick.
3. Titans 28, Bills 26 -- When you're without your security blanket (Steve McNair) and you're down 17-6 with Billy Volek making his first start at quarterback, then you have made an impression.
4. Cowboys 27, Redskins 0 -- The Cowboys' defense dominated a Redskins team that has seldom been blown out this year.
5a. Bears 13, Vikings 10 -- With rookie QB Rex Grossman making his debut, Bears rookie cornerback Charles Tillman made the play of the day to stun the Vikings.
5b. Packers 38, Chargers 21 -- This was a game that was getting away from the Packers, but they responded like champs on the road when the Chargers took a 21-17 lead.
5c. Chiefs 45, Lions 17 -- The offense was unstoppable. Then again, they were playing the Lions.
Sorry in Defeat
1. Giants 7, Saints 45 -- Coach Jim Fassel is embarrassed. You can understand why.
2. Vikings 10, Bears 13 -- I have great respect for Bears coach Dick Jauron, but there's no way the Vikings should lose such a pivotal game on the road when the other team is starting a rookie quarterback for the first time.
3. Lions 17, Chiefs 45 -- If anybody watched just 10 plays, you'd swear the Lions were actually afraid to tackle.
4. Redskins 0, Cowboys 27 -- QB Tim Hasselbeck had a passer rating of 0, which was the number of the day for the sorry 'Skins.
5. Ravens 12, Raiders 20 -- The Ravens had no business losing to the Raiders with all that was at stake, even if it was on the road.
Best Performance: Quarterback
1. Peyton Manning, Colts -- On a day when everyone wondered whether the prototype QB (Manning) or the future QB (Michael Vick) would shine most, Manning made his MVP statement again: 25-of-30 passing and five TDs.
2. Aaron Brooks, Saints -- He's been a classic underachiever, but you have to give him his dues for a five-TD night ... even if it was against the Giants.
3. Jeff Garcia, 49ers -- His Canadian Football League days paid off on a snowy afternoon. Unfortunately for the 49ers, even Garcia's brilliant 26-of-33, 344-yard, two-TD game was a field goal short in a 41-38 loss in Cincinnati.
4. Brett Favre, Packers -- So he's lost it, huh? He'll play with a splint on his healing fractured thumb the rest of the way, but he came up big with three fourth-quarter TD passes to propel Packers into a first-place tie in the NFC North.
5a. Donovan McNabb, Eagles -- What does Stuart Scott say? Cool as the other side of the pillow. That was McNabb on Monday night in a big win over Miami.
5b. Trent Green, Chiefs -- He sliced the Lions for 341 yards and three TDs with a 20-of-25 passing performance.
5c. Jake Delhomme, Panthers -- Counting Sunday, Delhomme now has directed seven game-winning drives on Carolina's final possession. In those seven drives, he's 22-of-29 for 237 yards for three TDs (the rest were FGs).
5d. Billy Volek, Titans -- In his first start, he overcame a 17-6 deficit to throw for two TDs in a big win over Buffalo. He also did it seriously injured with a lacerated spleen that wasn't discovered until Monday night.
Best Performance: Receiver
1. Joe Horn, Saints -- On the merits of his actual playing performance, you cannot ignore a 133-yard game with four TDs.
2. Marvin Harrison, Colts -- Yes, Horn can take a lesson from this guy on how to do it with class. Harrison was double-teamed by the Falcons, but he still split them for 117 yards and two TDs.
3. Derrick Mason, Titans -- Whether it's McNair or Volek, he can catch 'em when they need 'em -- nine for 137 yards on Sunday.
4. Terrell Owens, 49ers -- He's still one of the best, evidenced by an 8-for-127-yard, one-TD showing against the Bengals.
5a. Brandon Stokley, Colts -- He's finally healthy, and if he stays that way Manning won't miss injured Dallas Clark as much. He showed up with two TD catches and 95 yards on seven catches.
5b. Tony Gonzalez, Chiefs -- Who wouldn't want this guy for a target? He grabbed two TDs on six catches for 93 yards.
Best Performance: Running Back
1. Clinton Portis, Broncos -- True, we can start to wonder how this relatively small back will endure the pounding of a 38-carry day. He was hurt on his final carry that set up Jason Elam's game-winning FG, but he did have 139 yards and two TDs.
2. Brian Westbrook, Eagles -- What a dynamo. He had 11 touches for 104 yards and two TDs ... and every play felt like a significant one vs. the Dolphins.
3. Marshall Faulk, Rams -- On the surface, the numbers (28 for 85 yards and one TD) don't overly impress you, but Faulk was at his best when the Rams needed him as he delivered 51 yards on eight carries and caught a crucial third-down pass for a first down on St. Louis' final drive vs. Seattle.
4. Thomas Jones, Bucs -- Maybe there's hope for this guy, after all. He carried the rock 34 times for 134 yards and one TD.
5a. Curtis Martin, Jets -- In a day made nearly impossible by winter conditions, Martin popped the Steelers for 174 yards, helping the Jets in a field-position game that produced a 6-0 shutout.
5b. Jamal Lewis, Ravens -- It was in defeat, but noteworthy because Lewis' 125 yards leaves him within realistic striking distance of a 2,000-yard season (he has 1,847).
Defensive Notables (2 x 5 = 10)
1. Charles Tillman, CB, Bears -- The rookie out-competed Vikings WR Randy Moss for a would-be TD that has changed the face of the NFC North race. He threw in nine solo tackles.
2. Terence Newman, CB, Cowboys -- A more heralded rookie, Newman picked Redskins QB Tim Hasselbeck three times in a big shutout for the Cowboys.
3. Marcus Washington, DE, Colts -- He led an assault on Falcons QB Michael Vick, sacking him twice for losses of 19 yards.
4. Tyrone Poole, CB, Patriots -- How does Bill Belichick take these former first-round castaways like Poole and turn them into studs? Poole picked Jags rookie QB Byron Leftwich twice to set up touchdowns.
5. Phillip Buchanon, CB, Raiders -- He set the tone early when he intercepted Ravens QB Anthony Wright and returned it to the 1-yard line. The Raiders took a lead and never gave it up.
6. Gerard Warren, DT, Browns -- He actually has awoken from his slumber and had two sacks vs. the Broncos in a near-upset.
7. Rod Coleman, DL, Raiders -- He had two sacks and forced a fumble to make the Ravens and Wright most miserable.
8. Mike Minter, S, Panthers -- He is definitely Pro Bowl-worthy, and his interception return for a TD was a reminder in Arizona.
9 & 10. Leonard Little and Grant Wistrom, DE, Rams -- Wistrom had the better numbers, but Little's amazing speed and hustle when he ran down Shaun Alexander were testimony that he's as good as it gets in the NFL.
Best Games: Week 16
1. Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts (SNF) -- Plenty of fireworks with playoff implications (Sunday, ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).
2. Kansas City Chiefs at Minnesota Vikings -- It's show-and-tell time for the Vikings in this Saturday contest.
3. Cincinnati Bengals at St. Louis Rams -- The Bengals haven't played indoors all year, but I doubt they'll complain as they try to hold onto a share of the AFC North lead against the hot Rams.
4. Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns -- Ravens owner Art Modell won't make the trip, but it's his final game as the owner against his former franchise with plenty riding on it.
5a. San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles -- The 49ers have to make another long trip, but if they show up, they could make it interesting against the league's hottest team.
5b. Green Bay Packers at Oakland Raiders (MNF) -- The Raiders have shown up more times than not in the season's second half, and the Packers must win on a second straight trip west (Monday, ABC, 9 p.m. ET).