Colts' decision has widespread effects
Here are five things I learned from Week 16:
1. Tangled AFC web: The Colts' decision to pull Peyton Manning and many other starters with 5:08 remaining in the third quarter of their 29-15 loss to the Jets totally changed the AFC playoff picture. It hurt the playoff chances of the Texans and Steelers, who appeared to be big winners Sunday. It obviously helped the Jets and Ravens, who control their destiny heading into the final week. How strange. The Ravens lose to the Steelers 23-20 and still come out ahead.
The Jets were going to lose to the Colts if Manning stayed in the game. The Colts were leading 15-10 when he came out and was replaced by rookie Curtis Painter. Painter didn't paint a pretty picture for the Steelers, Broncos, Texans and Jaguars. Painter had a three-and-out on his first possession and then lost a fumble that Marques Douglas recovered for a touchdown. The Jets went on to score 19 unanswered points while Colts fans booed the collapse and the loss of a perfect season.
Because of the common opponent tiebreaker, the Jets will be the No. 5 seed if they beat the Bengals next Sunday. The Ravens will be the No. 6 seed if they beat the Raiders on the road. The biggest loser of the day was the Broncos, who possibly face their second consecutive late-season collapse. The Broncos lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds to the Eagles, 30-27. Last year, the Broncos went from 8-5 to 8-8 and lost the AFC West to the Chargers. The Ravens should beat the Raiders. But if the Jets also beat the Bengals, the Broncos would be out.
Had the Colts kept in their starters, the Ravens and Texans would have been in good shape, and the Steelers would still have had a chance to make the playoffs if the Patriots beat Houston next Sunday. Now, thanks to the Colts and a rookie quarterback, the Jets and Ravens are in control. The Bengals and Patriots can also thank the Colts for possibly keeping Ben Roethlisberger out of the playoffs.
2. Mistakes haunt Ravens: Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth summed up a weird AFC Sunday in which teams fighting for playoff spots didn't play like playoff teams.
"Missed opportunities is the moral of this story,'' Foxworth said after Baltimore's loss to the Steelers.
The recurring theme for the Ravens was penalties. Remember the three defensive penalties that allowed the Bengals to orchestrate a game-winning touchdown drive in Baltimore earlier this season? Sunday's mistakes were worse. The Ravens had 11 penalties for 113 yards, compared to four for 20 charged to the Steelers. Less than six minutes after a Foxworth interception return for a touchdown was called back because of linebacker Terrell Suggs' illegal block, the Ravens had a 15-yard touchdown run by Willis McGahee called back because of a Kelley Washington holding penalty.
If that wasn't bad enough, Derrick Mason dropped a sure touchdown pass in the end zone, and the Ravens had back-to-back penalties early in the fourth quarter -- including a stupid personal foul by tackle Oniel Cousins -- that pushed Baltimore out of field-goal range with the score tied at 20.
The Ravens are battling the Raiders for being the NFL's most penalized team in 2009. "I think you guys can go to penalties if you want,'' Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after the loss. "You can point the finger at whatever you want. We're going to Oakland.''
Don't get flagged going through airport security.
3. Dolphins' fatal flaw: Here's what we learned about the Dolphins, Jaguars, Steelers and Texans -- AFC teams that may be on the outside looking in when it comes to the wild-card race.
The Dolphins' decision to start two rookie cornerbacks clearly backfired. The Dolphins are 1-6 against Matt Ryan, Manning, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady (twice) and Matt Schaub, surrendering an average of 27.1 points and 292.2 yards a game. On Sunday, Schaub went 14-for-16 against Miami for 247 yards in the first half. Against good passing offenses, the Dolphins haven't been able to find good matchups.
"We tried several different things in the first half and not much of what we did was good enough,'' Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "We didn't tackle when we needed to tackle and the yards after the catch were there.''
The Jaguars' 35-7 loss to the Patriots was explainable. The Jaguars have beaten only one team with a winning record (Houston). They have only 14 sacks in 15 games. They can't pressure the quarterback, even though they gave up a boatload of draft choices to take defensive end Derrick Harvey in 2008.
The Steelers got too old along the defensive line and made major mistakes by not re-signing linebacker Larry Foote and cornerback Bryant McFadden. Plus, they can't cover on special teams. The Steelers give up 25.1 yards a kickoff return and have allowed four kickoffs to be returned for touchdowns.
The Texans are great outside the AFC South, but they are 1-5 within the division. Sunday's 27-20 victory over Miami may have saved Gary Kubiak's job, though.
4. Saints stumbling: The only drama in the NFC playoff race is at the top. After a 13-0 start, the Saints have all of a sudden put their No. 1 seed and home-field advantage at risk with last week's loss to the Cowboys and Sunday's 20-17 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Vikings still need the Saints to lose to Carolina next week to have any hope of capturing the No. 1 seed.
You might think the Saints should have little trouble beating Carolina, which has Matt Moore at quarterback and no Steve Smith (broken arm) at wide receiver, but who saw the loss to the Bucs coming? The Saints jumped out to a 17-0 lead over the Bucs, but they let Tampa Bay score 20 unanswered points. Sure, the Saints were missing wide receiver Lance Moore, linebacker Scott Shanle, safety Usama Young, cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Randall Gay, and tight end Jeremy Shockey, but the Saints have lost a little bit of an edge. Brees was efficient but not explosive. The defense was victimized for 129 yards rushing by Cadillac Williams, and that's with defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis back in the lineup.
The Vikings have their own issues. The Eagles, 30-27 winners over the Broncos, can still steal the second seed away from the Vikings. That puts the pressure on the Vikings to beat the Bears on Monday night and then come back next Sunday and beat the Giants. Mostly everything else in the NFC is set. The Cardinals are the fourth seed. The Packers will likely be the No. 5 seed after blowing out the Seahawks, 48-10. The Cardinals and Packers will meet in Week 17 and more than likely again in the wild-card round.
5. Giant problems: If you are the Giants, you have to be worried. Their 41-9 loss to the Panthers was embarrassing and it could cause a major roster shake-up and changes on the coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan replaced the popular Steve Spagnuolo and he's not inspiring Giants defenders. The defense is giving up a touchdown a game more than last year, even though the front office tried to bulk up the defensive front seven with the additions of Chris Canty, Rocky Bernard and Michael Boley.
The secondary has been hurt and can't cover. The Giants' offensive line is looking old. Coach Tom Coughlin has a lot of things to sort out.
Bucs coach Raheem Morris has won two games in a row, but he's still fighting for his coaching life. Even though he beat the Saints in overtime, reports came out Sunday that the Bucs have contacted former Steelers coach Bill Cowher. And, yes, Cowher is interested, according to multiple sources. Two things didn't help Morris' position. He's reportedly lost three assistants -- special teams coach Rich Bisaccia, secondary coach Joe Baker and defensive line coach Robert Nunn. Bisaccia is going to the University of Tennessee. Baker and Nunn aren't coming back next year, according to a source. It also didn't help that Morris went for a fourth-and-1 at the Saints' 19-yard line with five minutes left and didn't make it. They were trailing 17-10 at the time. Change may be coming in Tampa. Seahawks coach Jim Mora has lost his team. They lost to the Packers 48-10 and have been outscored 106-24 in the past three games. The Seahawks are 5-10 and finish the season at home against the Titans. Even more worrisome is the increasing number of interceptions thrown by Matt Hasselbeck. Steelers WR Hines Ward had a courageous game against the Ravens. He had four catches for 37 yards, but his aching hamstring forced him to miss most of the first half. His status is in question for next Sunday's game against the Dolphins, but you would guess he will try to play. The Bengals lost linebacker Rey Maualuga for the season with a broken ankle, but the Bengals believe they can get by with Rashad Jeanty as his replacement. Jeanty had 15 starts last season. Drew Stanton proved again that he doesn't have much of a future in Detroit. He had four turnovers in a 20-6 loss to the 49ers, forcing coach Jim Schwartz to bring back Daunte Culpepper. The Lions have now lost 20 consecutive road games. An easy 31-3 victory over Buffalo put the Falcons at 8-7. They need to beat the Bucs next week to end 44 years without back-to-back winning seasons. Brandon Stokley has been considered one of the smartest players in the league, but his ejection for accidentally swatting an official really cost the Broncos. Wide receiver Eddie Royal was out with a head and neck injury and wide receiver Kenny McKinley suffered what might have been a season-ending knee injury, leaving the Broncos down three receivers. So much for Laurence Maroney not being in the doghouse. The Patriots' running back was benched after losing a fumble at the Jaguars' 1 in the first quarter. It was his fourth lost fumble of the season. Halfback Jerome Harrison is making up for lost time. He had 39 carries for 145 yards in the Browns' 23-9 victory over the Raiders. In the past two games, he has 73 carries for 434 yards and four touchdowns. The Browns' three-game winning streak has given Eric Mangini a chance of keeping his job. According to sources in the Browns' organization, owner Randy Lerner would like new team president Mike Holmgren to consider keeping Mangini, but there are no guarantees. The St. Louis Rams have pretty much locked up the first pick in the draft with their 1-14 record. It's safe to say they have to consider drafting a quarterback. Marc Bulger is on injured reserve. Kyle Boller isn't a factor. Keith Null has thrown nine interceptions in the past three games. Broncos linebacker Elvis Dumervil got two more sacks to keep his hopes alive of being the defensive player of the year. He has 17 sacks.
John Clayton's game balls
• Offense: Filling in for the injured DeAngelo Williams, who was inactive because of an ankle injury, Jonathan Stewart had a career day, rushing for 206 yards on 28 carries. The big day allowed Stewart to go over 1,000 yards. He has 1,008 yards on 205 carries and nine touchdowns. Williams has 1,117 yards on 216 carries. It's the sixth time in NFL history two players on one team had 1,000-yard rushing seasons. It happened in 1972 and 1976 with the Steelers, 1985 with the Cleveland Browns, 2006 with the Falcons and last year with the New York Giants.
• Defense: A frustrated Aaron Schobel admitted last week that a decade of losing in Buffalo has gotten to him. He's considering retirement because the Bills don't show any hope of winning. Although the Bills were blown out by the Falcons 31-3, confirming his concerns, Schobel showed he's nowhere close to being a player who should retire. Schobel had a monster day against the Falcons. The veteran defensive end had three sacks for 16 yards and one additional quarterback hit, and he forced two fumbles. Schobel has 10 sacks, marking the fourth 10-sack season of his career.
• Special teams: Sebastian Janikowski is known for having the league's strongest leg. He proved it on Sunday. His 61-yard field goal right before halftime was the fourth longest in NFL history. Tom Dempsey (1970) and Jason Elam (1998) hold the record with 63-yarders. Matt Bryant had a 62-yarder for the Bucs in 2006. Janikowski had three field goals on the day and was the entire Raiders offense in their 23-9 loss to the Browns. It was 34 degrees with a 30 degree wind chill at the start of the game. Janikowski's previous longest field goal was a 57-yarder last year against the Jets.
If the playoffs started today, here's how the teams would be seeded. Teams seeded fifth and sixth are wild cards.
1. New Orleans (13-2) | Next: at Carolina
2. Minnesota (11-3) | Next: at Chicago (MNF)
3. Philadelphia (11-4) | Next: vs. at Dallas
4. Arizona (10-5) | Next: vs. Green Bay
5. Green Bay (10-5) | Next: vs. at Arizona
6. Dallas (10-5) | Next: vs. Philadelphia
1. Indianapolis (14-1) | Next: at Buffalo
2. San Diego (12-3) | Next: vs. Washington
3. New England (10-5) | Next: at Houston
4. Cincinnati (10-5) | Next: at N.Y. Jets
5. Denver (8-7) | Next: vs. Kansas City
6. N.Y. Jets (8-7) | Next: vs. Cincinnati
In the hunt: Baltimore (8-7), Pittsburgh (8-7) and Houston (8-7)
Week 16 rundown
• San Diego 42, Tennessee 17
The good news for the Chargers? They clinched the AFC's No. 2 seed. The bad news? No more games in December.
• Atlanta 31, Buffalo 3
The Falcons (8-7) have never had back-to-back winning seasons. That will change if they can down the Buccaneers in Week 17.
• Cincinnati 17, Kansas City 10
In their first home game since the death of Chris Henry, the Bengals got just enough offense to clinch the AFC North title.
• Cleveland 23, Oakland 9
The Browns have won three straight. Will the team's surge compel new boss Mike Holmgren to keep coach Eric Mangini around?
• Tampa Bay 20, New Orleans 17 (OT)
The shocker of the week. And a missed opportunity for the Saints, who blew a 17-0 lead and the chance to lock up home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
• Pittsburgh 23, Baltimore 20
The defending champs are still alive, thanks largely to a mistake-prone Ravens team (11 penalties, two of which negated TDs).
• San Francisco 20, Detroit 6
It's hard to win when you commit six turnovers, the Lions' total on Sunday. The 49ers are one win away from snapping a streak of six straight losing seasons.
• N.Y. Jets 29, Indianapolis 15
Apparently, a perfect season wasn't a priority for the Colts. Jets coach Rex Ryan should send the Colts a belated Christmas card for pulling their starters.
• Philadelphia 30, Denver 27
The Broncos' second-half rally fell short. Once 6-0, Denver needs help to make the playoffs.
• Dallas 17, Washington 0
A stellar defensive effort helped the Cowboys clinch a playoff berth. Now they turn their attention to Philly and a possible division crown.
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL• Minnesota at Chicago (ESPN, 8:30 ET)
An early look at next weekend's biggest games:
• Philadelphia (11-4) at Dallas (10-5): The winner takes the NFC East title.
• Pittsburgh (8-7) at Miami (7-8): The Steelers need a win and a little luck.
• Green Bay (10-5) at Arizona (10-5): Most likely a preview of the wild-card round.