Shorts and Shells: Week 13

Posted Dec. 05, 2011 @ 4:09 a.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

With his receivers dropping passes left and right, his offensive line melting around him and the Giants stringing together drives with ease, Aaron Rodgers was just settling in.

Even after the Giants tied the game at 35-all, completing a nine-play drive with a two-point conversion, Rodgers looked up at the clock and saw 58 seconds remaining. We now must redefine the parameters of what it takes to drive a team down the field.

Fourteen seconds. Two throws. That's all Rodgers needed to get his Packers in field-goal range.

The first throw was to Jermichael Finley for 24 yards. The same Finley who entered the game with five drops, by STATS LLC's count, and who had three unofficial boffs on the day.

The second pass was a gorgeous fade down the left sideline to Jordy Nelson (who one year ago at this point had 36 catches, 377 yards and one TD) for 27 sinful yards.

Certainly Mike McCarthy wanted to get a little closer than a 48-yard field-goal attempt (Mason Crosby uncharacteristically missed a 43-yarder at the end of the half), and so, ho hum, Rodgers hit Brandon Saine (three career touches before Sunday) for a loss of one yard and then recovered with 18 more yards to Greg Jennings to make Crosby's try more makeable.

"Shocking? You stood there and watched it," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said. "I don't know how shocking it was. It hurt and it should not have happened. I thought we were in pretty good shape, but you try to play coverage and you don't get enough pressure on him and you try to put pressure on him and you leave some holes in your coverage."

"Him." Coughlin, of course, meant Rodgers. Couldn't even say him by name. That's how good he is. One kick later, the Packers are 12-0 following the 2012 regular season's best game to date.

A couple of things were assured with the win. The Packers are in the playoffs officially (duh), they clinched the division with the Lions' loss Sunday night, and with his final drive, Rodgers is your league MVP — signed, sealed and delivered, and likely unanimously so, save one or two clever boneheads who vote for Tim Tebow or Peyton Manning for the award.

The drive did it. Heck, it didn't even feel like a drive. It happened so fast, so surgically. Rodgers is the assassin who wines, dines and charms his target before gutting him like a fish and doing so without a drop of blood hitting the ground. It's artful, deadly stuff.

"Yeah, those are the fun ones when you end up like that," Rodgers said. "We've had a number of games this year where we've won by a couple of scores and been kneeling down on the last possession of the game. But to get the ball on the 20, backed up under a minute and get down there and get it into chip-shot field-goal range is very special."

Rodgers is a fan of using the phrase "very special" in his postgame pressers. We're tired of using it to describe him because it feels like we are selling him short. It's his first game with a QB rating under 110 this season, and in many ways it was his biggest. He showed he's not just one to build big leads — Rodgers can win it at the end, too.

So the unbeaten talk rolls on, as does the chasing of the Patriots' 21-game win streak. The Packers are up to 18 now, and they could surpass the mark in Week 17 against the Lions — the same day they would become the second 16-0 team if they did so.

But you get the idea that the Packers won't be too rattled by chasing a few forms of history. They are keeping their eyes on what is in front of them.

"I mean it's something you think about and it's something that you guys constantly have asked us about, but it doesn't hinder us playing each and every week," said Packers OLB Clay Matthews, who had his biggest game of the season with a sack and a pick-six. "We understand that in order to get to the 16-0 mark, you have to make it 12-0 this week. So we focus on the team that's at hand, and it's been talked about since Week Seven or Eight, so we just continue to move along and progress as the season progresses and get to the playoffs and keep our nice little streak going."

For the Giants, it was their best game in three weeks. In fact, you could argue that they have played two of their best games against the Patriots, whom they beat, and the Packers, whom they took to the brink.

And history has shown us that the Giants can turn a season on its head on a loss to an unbeaten team. Remember back to 2007, Week 17. The Giants lost 38-35 in a thriller in the Meadowlands to the 16-0 Patriots. The same team, of course, they would eventually beat in the Super Bowl.

Sunday's result: 38-35 to the unbeaten Packers. If there's a rematch, it would happen in Green Bay, likely in either the divisional round or the conference title game.

"Hopefully we can take that same approach," Giants QB Eli Manning said. "That game we lost, but I think everybody felt good about the way we played and had a little momentum going into the playoffs. Obviously it's going to be a similar feel with these next four games. They're all going to be playoff-style games where we need to win."

The Giants showed that they have the firepower to match up with the league's best. But they also learned one key lesson: better to have the ball in the hands of Eli Manning than in those of Rodgers at game's end. Moral of the story: Don't even give Rodgers 14 seconds. Against the Packers, you have to have the ball last.

 

Controversial call of the week

We highlight the Vikings' only chance to win the game against the Broncos and how they chose to forgo it:

It's one of those football plays that defensive players tend to hate but smart coaches have to endorse.

With 1:33 remaining in a tie game, 32-all, the Broncos intercepted Christian Ponder's horrible pass and returned it to the 15-yard line of the Vikings. Two plays later, the Vikings allowed Lance Ball to run 11 yards to the four-yard line and burned their final timeout with 1:12 left.

At this point, knowing that they can't stop the clock again or force much worse than a 21-yard field-goal attempt, the Vikings needed to let the Broncos score. It's what many people feel the Packers did to the Broncos at the end of Super Bowl XXXII. Otherwise, the Broncos could just milk the clock and kick the game-winner.

"We talked about it, but we have been in that situation where we blocked a kick," Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said. "Let's try to block it. It was like a minute to go when they got the first down, and we decided not to do it."

So that's what the Vikings did: They reduced the game to a more-than-99-percent probability, tantamount to an extra point. They allowed the Broncos to control the clock, run it down and perform one of the NFL's most perfunctory acts. Predictably, the Broncos won, and the Vikings got nowhere close to blocking it.

"You'd like to be able to give your offense another chance, but you'd like to be able to come up with a play to end the game, as well, or block a field goal, whatever it may be," Frazier said.

A week after foolishly going for it on 4th-and-goal down 10 points at Atlanta — although showing some nerve in the process — Frazier went soft. He was outcoached. Now maybe a smart player such as Tim Tebow sees the Vikings are allowing the Broncos to score and he takes a knee before the goal line, a la Maurice Jones-Drew against the Jets a few years ago or Brian Westbrook against the Cowboys.

But the Vikings had to take such a chance in order to get the ball back into the hands of Ponder, who was throwing the ball well despite two crushing interceptions. A losing team keeps losing, and it has almost mastered the art of situational losses this season.

 

Controversial call of the week, Part Two

Normally this section is known as "The wow factor," but we had to issue a sequel here:

At 9:50 left in the third quarter, Aaron Rodgers hit Greg Jennings on a 20-yard TD pass, but it was subject to review based on the fact that all scoring plays are subject to booth checks.

This was significant because Tom Coughlin was out of challenges, but that was not the controversial part. Jennings beat Giants rookie CB Prince Amukamara on the route and had a step on him, but as Jennings caught the ball, Amukamara caught up and appeared to dislodge the ball as Jennings brought it into his body and attempted to complete the act of a catch.

Anyone who saw the play saw Jennings drop the ball out of bounds, and the average fan's first thought had to be: Calvin Johnson. The Johnson play from Week One in 2010 is now infamous, and any questionable catch is referred back to him. This was different in that Jennings did not go to the ground, and that apparently saved him.

Jennings might not have completed the act of catching the ball (hey, this is the way the NFL writes its rulebook) the way Johnson needed to, but Jennings apparently doesn't have to.

In short, it's a stupid rule. And an ambiguous one. The replay booth called it a TD, and the rule apparently says it should be one. But no one, myself included, can tell you what the rules are anymore on a catch. It's now the toughest judgment call, tougher than pass interference, in the NFL. Shouldn't a catch be, um, one of the easiest to determine?

 

Entertainers and icons

You say you want a receiver revolution? Well, you know, they all want to change the world:

Has there been a better breakout season for pass catchers ever?

Victor Cruz is the NFL's third-leading receiver with 1,076 yards. Laurent Robinson has been a godsend for the Cowboys. Rookies A.J. Green and Torrey Smith are on pace for 1,000-yard seasons. Doug Baldwin has four more 20-yard receptions than DeSean Jackson. Jordy Nelson is a full-fledged star now.

Even the tight ends have gotten in on the party. Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are dueling for All-Pro honors, with the latter breaking the all-time mark for touchdowns by a tight end with 14 in a season (13 receiving, one rushing).

So, if you are a team in need of a big-play receiver, which route do you go this coming offseason?

There is quite a name crew set to hit free agency, but risk clearly is high with that route. Last week, we looked at the missteps of Stevie Johnson, DeSean Jackson and Dwayne Bowe in their contract season, but a broader scope reveals that this has not been a banner season for many other receivers due to hit free agency in March.

For every Wes Welker, who works his tail off and says nary a word about his contract, there are guys like the aforementioned players, plus Vincent Jackson, Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon and the Eagles' Steve Smith, who have not cashed in with big seasons.

Vincent Jackson still plays at a high level but has been hurt by the Chargers' losing and Philip Rivers' struggles. The same could be said for Wayne and Garcon, who clearly miss Peyton Manning. And Smith appears to be working back from injury and could go back to the Giants.

But the smarter, cheaper approach to the position might be to try to unearth the next breakthrough player or mine talent through the draft. Sure, Green and Smith were first-rounders, but Cruz and Baldwin were undrafted.

 

Ten takeaways of the week

Here are 10 things I took from Week 13, aka "We now can safely talk playoffs week":

1. After Week 10, people feel it's time to start talking playoffs. Week 13 showed the flaw in that approach. In Week 10, the Bills were 5-4 and the Broncos were 4-5. The Giants led the Cowboys by a game in the NFC East. The Bears and Bengals were both surging to 6-3, looking like wild-card killers. The Texans were talked about like a sleeper No. 1 seed after thrashing the Buccaneers, and the Ravens had lost at Seattle. I always say you can't talk playoffs until at least one team has clinched. That's when things start to crystallize.

2. Peyton Manning had some interesting comments on the CBS pregame show about rumors of his wanting to hang it up and perhaps coach instead, answering Bill Cowher's question on this topic. "I certainly want to keep playing football, believe me," Manning said with his patented smirk, and certainly in good spirits. "Everybody is already asking me if I'm going to coach, if I'm going to retire. I tell you, if I'm going to coach, Coach Cowher, I'm 0-11 as an assistant coach this year. I don't think anybody wants to hire me. I can assure you that as a coach. I still want to play." So that settles that.

3. What is it with Jets and muffed returns? They have had six this season in six different games, with Jeremy Kerley the culprit Sunday. Guessing no one but Jim Leonhard touches a punt the rest of this season, even if he is not a threat to take it past about 10 yards.

4. Speaking of the Jets, they still can't win games in which their quarterback doesn't rally and make a big throw late, but enough of that for now. Let's talk about Aaron Maybin, who is turning his career around. I saw him in February, days before he would be cut by the Bills, and he remained upbeat about the direction he was heading. Maybin must have known something the rest of us, save for Rex Ryan, did not. In Sunday's win, Maybin delivered the knockout blow, a strip-sack of Rex Grossman that effectively ended the game with about five minutes left. It was his sixth sack of the season and his fourth fumble forced (which leads the NFL) of the season. In two years with Buffalo and 27 games, he had zero sacks and one forced fumble. Ryan has found ways to put him to good use, even though Maybin clearly has a long way to go as a run defender. Still, you have to consider him one of the better comeback stories of the season.

5. Falcons WR Julio Jones made two plays that really cost his team down the stretch. On the potential game-tying drive against the Texans, Falcons QB Matt Ryan hit WR Harry Douglas on a 17-yard completion that put the ball on the Texans' 45-yard line with about 45 seconds left. But Jones, who had run a deep route on the play, forgot to hustle back to the line of scrimmage. He wasted about seven or eight seconds as Ryan waited for Jones to get back to the line to spike it. Jones caught a 20-yarder on the next play and helped put the Falcons in scoring range. But the clock ran down over the next three plays, leaving only one second on the clock and one more shot at the endzone. Ryan appeared to give Jones an excellent opportunity in the endzone, but he dropped the pass (to be fair, CB Kareem Jackson made a play on the ball, but Jones had a real shot at it). And that was only third down. Had Jones hustled on the earlier play, the Falcons might have had another shot at the endzone. That's two bad plays, and the Falcons lost.

6. The Cardinals are hot. That's four out of five games they have won, doing so without great QB play in any of them, really. We shouldn't get too excited, not with two wins coming against the Rams and one against the Eagles, who, frankly, have to be called what they are, which is a 4-8 team. And Sunday's win over the Cowboys was the Cards' first this season over a team with a winning record. But the Cardinals have become the overtime killers in recent years. Counting their two 19-13 wins in overtime this season, they have won some games in amazing fashion in their building. The Mat McBriar blocked-punt game against the Cowboys in 2008. The Aaron Rodgers fumble-return game in the 2010 playoffs. The Patrick Peterson punt-return game against the Rams this season. And the new hero: LaRod Stephens-Howling, taking a screen play (without his linemen really getting out in front and blocking) 52 yards for the win.

7. How about the Patriots keeping us on our toes with lineup changes? They cut Taylor Price, a 2010 third-rounder on Saturday and, from the practice squad, promoted C Nick McDonald, who promptly started. So did Matthew Slater, a part-time receiver and full-time special-teamer, who started at safety over Sterling Moore. But what mattered in the end? The big dogs. It was Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker (11 targets, 11 catches) and Vince Wilfork (10 tackles, sack) who made the big noise in the end. And the guess is that they will be the ones who carry the Patriots in the playoffs.

8. Percy Harvin ill is better than three-quarters of the league healthy. He absolutely carried the Vikings on his back Sunday, and the Broncos had no solutions to stopping him. If Harvin ever could find a way to stay on the field 60-70 snaps a game, he could be a Hall of Famer.

9. The Lions are killing themselves with penalties. They had 11 for 107 yards against the Saints, and those plays wiped out a net of 130 offensive and special-teams yards. That's 237 yards — the not-so-hidden yards — they left on the field. Matthew Stafford was superb, but the rest of the team fell short. A lack of control right now is the issue. Jim Schwartz has to reel his team back in. Now. Especially after Ndamukong Suh week, it is inexcusable for Titus Young, Stefan Logan and Brandon Pettigrew to commit mindless, pointless post-snap fouls. It shows this team's lack of maturity right now.

10. The only top teams to flash a first-rate defense on Sunday? The 49ers and Ravens. After their Thanksgiving meeting, I thought there was still a chance we could see them meet again in Indy for the Super Bowl. I still do. The Packers are beatable. So are most of the other teams in the race. There is more drama in this playoff run than I think most people realize.

 

Top five, bottom five

My top five and bottom five NFL power-ranking votes this week:

1. Packers: Keeping a close eye on the Charles Woodson injury.

2. 49ers: Aldon Smith had another impact game.

3. Ravens: Good things happen when Ray Rice gets involved. Yes, I have written it before.

4. Steelers: Welcome back to the party, Mike Wallace.

5. Saints: Still not loving their defense, but they seem to make it work. And they are always in control, unlike their opponent Sunday.

28. Browns: End-of-half pick by Colt McCoy killed any chance of an upset.

29. Jaguars: Here's hoping Mel Tucker gets a legitimate chance to earn the removal of "interim."

30. Vikings: Christian Ponder started slowly, got white-hot and then finished poorly.

31. Rams: The best way to pass-protect for Sam Bradford? Naturally, keep him out of the lineup.

32. Colts: Battled tooth and nail in what they deemed to be their Super Bowl but came up short once again.