Shorts and Shells: Week 15

Posted Dec. 19, 2011 @ 3:48 a.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

Within about 45 real-time seconds, we saw the last undefeated team fall and the last winless team win.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a season.

Maybe Sean Payton knew something was in the air on what would become Upset Sunday. He was out there coaching his Saints until the final seconds.

"We came in at halftime feeling like we had just let them hang around, and we knew we couldn't let it bite us," Saints QB Drew Brees said. "We had to come out in the second half, and it was going to have to be an all-day fight. For me, as soon as I got the ball offensively, I knew I had to march it down the field."

Payton went for an onside kick attempt after taking a 14-6 lead in the early second quarter not to relive Super Bowl glory of a few years ago. He did it to instill a sense of desperation and hunger in his team and to hammer home the message that has become the No. 1 theme of the 2011 NFL season: No lead is safe.

Sunday's addendum after a slew of shocking results: You never can tell in the NFL.

That's why Brees didn't come out of the game until the Saints had a 29-point lead and why the Saints kept rushing six in the middle of the fourth quarter. Their pedal-to-the-metal approach in the blowout win should not be surprising. The door is wide open for the Super Bowl. The team with the most determined desperation might just win it all.

Think about what we figured out Sunday:

Other than that, just another Sunday.

The Packers' bellwether loss, their first in 364 days, was telling for the team and set the tone for the rest of the league in Week 15. It was a nearly total egg-lay, mixed with a good measure of bad luck. The injuries to Bryan Bulaga, who had his leg rolled up on, and Derek Sherrod, whose broken leg means he's out for the season, are bad news for an offensive line that already was shaky.

The formula all season was stringing together big plays on offense and forcing turnovers on defense, and that simply didn't happen Sunday.

There might be a silver lining to the loss to the Chiefs, in that the pressure of having to be perfect no longer is there. Many of the 1998 Broncos, who lost after starting 13-0, point to that loss as having freed them up.

But those Broncos didn't have to change strategies at season's end because of injuries. If the Packers can't protect Aaron Rodgers sufficiently, they are in deep trouble.

So does this open the door for the Saints, who quietly turned in their best defensive game of the season? You also could probably make the statement that Brees is right at Rodgers' level now, perhaps above it ever so slightly.

Again, as we have learned, making grand statements on a week-to-week basis this season is a losing bet. But that doesn't mean that the Vikings were not impressed Sunday.

"The Saints played good for a reason," said Vikings rookie QB Christian Ponder, who had a miserable game. "They're going to be in the NFC championship game most likely for a reason."

Out of the mouths of babes ...

Maybe. Just maybe.

 

The wow factor

This week's edition is dedicated to the Giants' "embarrassing" (their word, not mine) loss to the Redskins:

In a week of stunners, this shocked me the most.

A Redskins offensive line that was down its two most talented blockers (OTs Trent Williams and Jammal Brown), one that was starting two rookies (seventh-rounder Maurice Hurt and Willie Smith), and with a group of nearly unrecognizable tight ends (backups Richard Quinn and Dominique Byrd were both signed the past two weeks), dominated the Giants' defensive front. Owned it.

The Giants had us all believing they were ready to roll. They had a clutch QB in Eli Manning and a bell-cow pass rusher in Jason Pierre-Paul coming into Sunday's game and looked to be the most dangerous of the subpar NFC East teams.

They had us fooled.

Pierre-Paul was a monster all game, with 16 tackles (two for losses), three QB hits and a sack. But the rest of the D-line was a sieve. Without that unit playing its best, there is no way to make up for the coverage issues.

"We looked like the four-win team out there today rather than the Redskins," Giants DT Chris Canty said. "It's embarrassing. I'm embarrassed."

Redskins QB Rex Grossman threw for only 185 yards, but he picked apart the Giants after two early interceptions. Rookie CB Prince Amukamara had a woeful game as the team has tried to get him up to speed after a lost early season by playing him way too much.

And then there is the offense. Manning had a bad game. He's allowed one now and then, but this was bad even by Eli's standards. Throw in the miscommunications with Mario Manningham and three drops (two in the endzone) by Hakeem Nicks, and it was a miserable game all around.

The Giants still can win the division. But not by playing like this.

 

Entertainers and icons

We single out the part of the Patriots that makes everyone think they will not win a Super Bowl this season:

After three series the Patriots needed to, as Shannon Sharpe once thoughtfully suggested, call the National Guard. It was that bad defensively early at Mile High.

After a brutal first quarter, capped by Carter's injury (which appears season-ending), the Patriots had allowed 167 rushing yards, which was 60 more than they were giving up per game.

All season long, the secondary had taken its share of hits, but this time it was the front seven's turn to take blame. Dane Fletcher and Rob Ninkovich looked awful early, unable to get off blocks and make tackles. And the Patriots appeared to be toast when Carter went down, leaving a battered group shorthanded.

Credit secondary coach Matt Patricia for a hand in the turnaround. Several defensive players credited Patricia after the game for scrapping the team's game plan defensively and starting afresh.

They say that coaches don't draw up plays in the sand, so to speak, but that's apparently what happened. The Patriots tightened up in the next five series and turned what was a 16-7 Broncos lead on its head. Two forced fumbles and three punts in five series (with a total of 64 yards of offense allowed in that stretch) was enough for Tom Brady and the offense to get rolling properly.

By the time Tim Tebow got his second possession of the second half, it was 34-16 Patriots. They allowed an 89-yard scoring drive and kept Tebow Time alive briefly, but it was far from enough.

This Patriots' defense is not a good unit. Far from it. But in an AFC picture where every key team has a fatal flaw — did you watch the Ravens Sunday night? — is the Patriots' defense capable of enough big plays to make it to a Super Bowl?

This group can't play four great quarters against good offenses, but Sunday showed that two strong quarters might be enough to win road games against winning teams.

 

Ten takeaways of the week

Here are 10 things I took from Week 15, which unraveled the whole ball of yarn yet again:

1. A note on Romeo Crennel, a man I have a great deal of respect for — and one of the nicer guys you ever hope to meet in the NFL. This win should go a long way toward helping Crennel's cause to earn the Chiefs' permanent head-coaching job. The locker room was an emotional scene with the players chanting, "Romeo! Romeo!" And good for him. But one game should not be the reason why Crennel gets this job. Ask the Vikings, who rallied around Leslie Frazier late last season amid all the turmoil in Minnesota and won a shocking game over the Eagles (then roundly considered a Super Bowl favorite) in Philadelphia. Some people believe that one game, as much as anything, helped earn Frazier the Vikings' job this season. Well, they are 2-12 now. Not saying that is the Chiefs' fate in 2012. But this victory over the Packers, however shocking it was, should not be the only factor determining Crennel's future in K.C.

2. Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski earns praise for his finest game plan of the season. Not just the incredible Fumblerooski play they installed Friday and executed to perfection on Sunday to earn a 21-0 lead in Houston. But also for the second half. Yes, the Panthers followed their maddening pattern of building leads and then letting opponents get back in games in third quarters. But Chudzinski gunned it in the fourth, refusing to get conservative. He pushed his team with an open offensive game, and it resulted in a Panthers win. It was the kind of victory that makes you think that, with an offseason of improvement and bolstering the defense, the Panthers could be contenders in 2012.

3. Rams DE Chris Long did his best Sunday to try to make the Pro Bowl, despite his team's awful season. He notched his 13th sack and also led a huge charge on a first-half fourth-down stop of Bengals RB Cedric Benson. Long's motor has not stopped all season, and he and MLB James Laurinaitis will be nice building blocks for the future. For whoever coaches the Rams.

4. Steve Spagnuolo might be fighting for his coaching life, but the other NFC West teams have received some excellent leadership this season. Ask league insiders and they will tell you that Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt is maybe one of the seven or eight best coaches in the NFL. He's proving it this season. Week in and week out, he puts his team in a position to win no matter the health of his offense and has allowed Ray Horton to run the show for what appears to be a defense with a bright future. We also need to credit Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll for finishing strong the past two seasons, something he didn't do in his tenure a generation ago in New England. Both teams are 7-7 and mathematically in the race. Sure, they probably are the longest of long shots. But Whisenhunt and Carroll have given their teams a chance. Young teams, as these are, don't often respond to late-season coaching when all appears lost. These two guys have done well for themselves.

5. Boy, when the Ravens fall, they fall hard. What says more about their team — their losses or their wins? They have a history of beating the Patriots and twice this season have taken down the Steelers, scoring 63 points in the two games. They had impressive victories over the Jets, Texans, Bengals and 49ers, too. All in playoff-like atmospheres. But road losses to the Titans early, to the Jaguars and Seahawks in the middle of the season and to the Chargers Sunday night have us rethinking just what the potential of this Ravens team is through the length of the playoffs. And their loss in Week 15 means it's more likely they will have to go on the road at some point, maybe even in the first weekend of the postseason. Do you trust the Ravens in that situation? It's worth asking. They are 7-0 in Baltimore but 3-4 on the road.

6. Jason Babin, not Jared Allen, is your NFL sack leader and the current favorite to challenge Michael Strahan's 2001 NFL mark of 21½ sacks. With eight sacks in his past three games, Babin now has 18 on the season. It would take a pretty heroic effort, collecting four sacks in the final two games, but Babin notched three Sunday and could be facing a rookie (Cowboys ORT Tyron Smith, who was nicked up in Saturday's win) and a journeyman (Washington's Tyler Polumbus, who replaced an injured Brown) in those games. Doable? Uh huh. As for Allen, he complained about being replaced late against the Saints. Is there any doubt he's still gunning for Strahan? Not a one.

7. Jets head coach Rex Ryan didn't shy away from calling out WR Santonio Holmes, whose two turnovers in the first quarter led to 14 Eagles points in what would become a 45-19 Jets loss. "I mean, when your best player turns the ball over twice, directly, I mean, that's a disappointment," Ryan said. "But that's kind of the way the day was. We all can look in the mirror and find fault." Holmes came to the postgame press conference and said some good things, taking some of the blame. But he also wore a Superman T-shirt while doing so. His wardrobe choices clearly were his least offensive mistakes on Sunday, but Holmes has to know better. Even his TD catch, which was a beauty, was colored by a silly 15-yard penalty for celebration. The Jets' attention to detail sometimes is shockingly poor, and Sunday's game was an example of how Holmes let his team down. He might be a big-game player, but Holmes came up short in a huge loss.

8. These Eagles are the biggest flirts in the NFL, and they might yet again break our hearts with a loss to the Cowboys, whom they crushed earlier in the season. But you cannot question Michael Vick's toughness. He took two massive hits in the pocket, was smashed on a few of his five runs and sacrificed his body to reach out and score his first rushing TD of the season in the win over the Jets. Vick fell squarely on his broken ribs as he dove into the endzone for the score that gave his Eagles a 21-0 lead, one they would not give up. With his team's back completely against the wall, Vick toughed his way through it and chewed up a Jets defense with a pretty good reputation. It was a game and clutch effort when the Eagles needed it most.

9. The QB situations I am most curious to see for next season: 1. Colts. 2. Redskins. 3. Cardinals. 4. Chiefs. 5. Dolphins. 6. Browns. 7. Seahawks. Where Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Matt Barkley end up is anyone's guess. But could the Cardinals and Chiefs have just as intriguing situations and not add a high-profile QB? John Skelton is just winning, something that has made Tim Tebow a household name in Denver and could push him in a battle against Kevin Kolb. And in Kansas City, the Chiefs could have a really tasty battle between Matt Cassel and Kyle Orton.

10. The Titans waited too long to pull Matt Hasselbeck, who looks broken down now. Jake Locker rallied the team and has made some stunningly good throws the past few weeks in relief. He has a gamer's mentality and doesn't mind winning games ugly. After an awful loss, it makes perfect sense if the Titans turn to Locker full time.

 

Top five, bottom five

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

1. Packers: Dropped passes are a recurring theme.

2. Saints: Guy you can't forget about is Lance Moore, who is a shockingly effective red-zone weapon.

3. Steelers: Will feel the itch to keep pushing with Ravens' loss.

4. Patriots: So flawed, yet — with that offense — still so dangerous.

5. Ravens: Where was the deep pass in San Diego?

28. Jaguars: They might not realize how lucky they are to have MJD.

29. Buccaneers: Josh Freeman needs a QB coach to strip him down and build him back up.

30. Vikings: Are we sure a cornerback isn't as big a need as left tackle?

31. Rams: Might be time to shut down Sam Bradford for the season.

32. Colts: Don't be shocked if they win another one.