Fred Taylor, Jaguars RB
In a game the Jacksonville Jaguars were not supposed to win, playing not only a good Green Bay team but facing the Packers in the kind of arctic conditions that typically undo December visitors to Lambeau Field, tailback Fred Taylor carried 22 times for 165 yards and one touchdown. The entire Jaguars roster, and coach Jack Del Rio's staff, deserve credit for the crucial victory, a win that actually moved Jacksonville ahead of Baltimore (by virtue of a tiebreaker advantage) in the chase for the final AFC wild-card spot. The conditions alone would have made it easy for the Jaguars to succumb but, on a day when quarterback Byron Lefwich was really fairly ordinary, Taylor wouldn't let it happen.
Comments on the weekend's games from a league personnel director, an AFC pro scout and a retired scout:
"(Giants general manager) Ernie Accorsi made a wise decision on draft day when he refused to include (defensive end Osi) Umenyiora in the Eli Manning trade package he sent to San Diego. For a guy with limited football exposure, (Umenyiora) is a player. He ran around blocks all day on Saturday against Pittsburgh. How often do you see an end credited with 13 tackles, like he was? And he's got five or six sacks (actually seven) for the season."
"Speaking of that Pittsburgh game, I know (Ben) Roethlisberger was impressive at times, but the league is starting to catch up a little bit. You look at his last six starts, seven interceptions and 23 sacks. In the first six (starts), he had only three 'picks' and took seven sacks. He's missing on his first read a lot of times and that means he gets out of the pocket more than he really has to. Look, it's hard to quibble with the results, OK? But defenses are starting to get a little bit better book on him now."
"Man, did (Bengals quarterback Jon) Kitna play poorly, huh? I actually thought he would be a tough nut for the Buffalo defense, but he was bad, really bad. The only plus for the Bengals was that it reinforced again that (head coach) Marvin Lewis did the right thing in handing the starting job to Carson Palmer during the offseason. The Bengals were really a different offense without Palmer on Sunday and you can bet no one knew that more than (wide receiver) Chad Johnson. In the last several weeks, Cincy has challenged every secondary it played by going vertical. But with Kitna in the game on Sunday, the deep ball simply wasn't there and you could see Johnson getting more and more frustrated as the game wore on."
"There are a lot of mid-level players who have helped themselves in the free agent market for next spring and one of them is (Washington) linebacker Antonio Pierce. Yeah, I know, teams aren't going to pay big money for a middle 'backer, and a guy who was just a special teams player before this year. But, you watch, Pierce will get a decent deal from somebody who wants a guy who is pretty active and who has demonstrated he's more than just a run-stuffer."
"That (Drew) Bennett kid from the Titans is starting to look like the best No. 2 wide receiver in the league. All right, so maybe that's an overstatement. But, man, he is good (28 catches for 517 yards and eight touchdowns in the last three games). He's big and angular, can get up over people in the 'red zone' and runs really nice routes. In fact, his route-running and his aggressiveness in going after the ball are the two things he has improved the most this year."
"A lot of people think (Jets linebacker Jonathan) Vilma is the defensive rookie of the year. But I think it's the corner from Houston, (Dunta) Robinson. He had some coverage problems earlier in the year, but is playing lights-out the last month or so. Six interceptions and they're starting to use him to rush the quarterback out of the slot now, and he's got three sacks. I like him a lot."
"(Steelers offensive coordinator Ken) Whisenhunt is a guy to watch, maybe a couple of years from now, as a head coach candidate. He's more sound fundamentally than the guy he replaced, (Buffalo head coach Mike) Mularkey, but also does some clever stuff with motion to free people up. You look at Hines Ward, and he is always open, it seems, on third-and-short. Part of that is the design, which puts him in motion and keeps corners from being able to jam him."
"I know we're beating a dead horse on this one, but, man, that Peerless Price (Atlanta wide receiver) just does not work very hard to get open. If he doesn't get the ball early in a game, he gets disinterested and runs lazy routes. Do they throw him the ball enough? Hell, they don't throw it to any of their wide receivers enough. But part of Price's job is to make himself available to the quarterback and he doesn't do it. The guy is 28 years old now and you've got to wonder if he's lost some of that top-end speed he had when he came into the league."
"Book it right now: Carolina defensive end (Julius) Peppers will be the defensive player of the year in 2005. That kid has really grown up. My gosh, what an incredible athlete and now he's got his motor going, too."
New York Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, who interviewed with University of Pittsburgh officials on Friday night, made a solid impression with representatives from his alma mater. And so did Baltimore offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, who met with Pitt athletic direction Jeff Long in Indianapolis on Sunday, hours before the Ravens' game against the Colts. It appears the choice is down to the two former Panthers stars and Oklahoma co-defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. Lewis, by the way, finished as the unofficial runner-up to Jim Mora for the Atlanta Falcons job 11 months ago. He was scheduled for a second interview with Falcons officials until Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher fired him from his post as Steelers defensive coordinator. Concluding that they would suffer a public relations disaster if they awarded their job to a guy who had just been dismissed, the Falcons canceled the second interview. ... Some of Nick Saban's assistants at LSU, the ones presumed to be on his potential staff in Miami, have begun to ask NFL buddies about the Dolphins' talent level. It's assumed Saban will accept the Dolphins' job, at five years for $25 million or more, before the end of the week. Neither he nor Miami officials want the thing to linger beyond Christmas if possible. ... Atlanta officials will enter into contract extension talks with quarterback Michael Vick after the season. Vick could seek a signing bonus of $40 million. ... No matter how the Jets finish the year, it's almost certain offensive coordinator Paul Hackett won't be back for 2005. Head coach Herm Edwards, who didn't hesitate to fire a pretty good defensive chief in Ted Cottrell last year, wants his offense to be more consistent. ... Oakland wideout Jerry Porter, who had eight catches and three touchdowns on Sunday, has come on strong in the last few weeks. Porter is a pending free agent and he seems to realize that the most lasting impression people will have of him is how he performed in the dog days with a bad Raiders team. He, along with T.J. Houshmandzadeh of Cincinnati and Carolina's Muhsin Muhammad, are three wide receivers who have made themselves some money in free agency over the past month or so. ... He hasn't exactly lit things up, even during the Buffalo Bills' resurgence, but quarterback Drew Bledsoe will definitely return in 2005 as the starter. ... Former Bills backup quarterback Alex Van Pelt, whose career was ended by a neck injury and who is part of the Buffalo radio team, is hoping to find a job as a college assistant coach. ... Minnesota owner Red McCombs intends to exercise his option on coach Mike Tice's contract for 2005. Tice would prefer something else become available to provide him some leverage, but there is virtually no chance of that.