Shorts and Shells: Week 17

Posted Jan. 02, 2012 @ 5:18 a.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

We'll have all week to break down the playoff battles, and ProFootballWeekly.com is the place to be for that.

But let's sit back and consider the records that were broken this season, a few of which fell in Week 17.

We all know about Drew Brees eclipsing Dan Marino's 27-year-old all-time passing mark, and he ended up shattering it by 392 yards. But Brees broke two more notable marks on Sunday: Peyton Manning's completions mark from 2010 and Brees' own completion percentage record that he set in '09. Brees topped Manning by 18 completions and beat his own completion percentage by a full point.

As a team, the Saints took down three marks: total offensive yards (7,474), team passing yards (5,347) and first downs (416).

And Brees wasn't the only one to surpass Marino. Tom Brady did it, too, becoming only the second NFL player to throw for more than 5,100 yards in a season. He just couldn't catch a runaway Brees, who stayed in the game Sunday until well into the fourth quarter in a blowout of the Panthers.

One reason Brady was able to have his tremendous total was because the Patriots' passing defense was so bad this season. It recorded the most net passing yards allowed in a season (4,703), passing the ineptitude of the '95 Falcons (4,541).

But that wasn't the only Patriots record Sunday, and this one came with some drama also involving Saints and Patriots.

Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, both non-first-rounders in 2010, pinballed back and forth in search of Kellen Winslow's 31-year-old record for receiving yards by a tight end, which had been 1,290 yards.

Graham actually topped the record first on Sunday, pushing to 1,298 yards just as Gronkowski got to 1,296. Later, Gronkowski caught a TD pass from Brady to get to 1,305, but Graham at that moment remained ahead of him with 1,310.

It was like this all afternoon. But Graham topped out at 1,310. The Patriots long had sealed the No. 1 seed in the AFC, taking a big lead on the Bills after having trailed 21-0 in the first half. With 1:30 remaining, up 49-21, backup QB Brian Hoyer was told to throw. And to whom else: Gronk caught a 22-yard pass to earn the record. The Patriots knew the Saints game was over at that point, and Bill Belichick decided to give his player a shot because "he had earned it."

I see no problem with this. Records in the NFL, statistically speaking, do not carry the same weight as they do in baseball, but they are important parts of the game's history nonetheless. Gronkowski earned his place just as Brees did, with Sean Payton calling pass plays with a big lead in Week 16 against the Falcons.

What's interesting about the Saints and Patriots is that many people feel that the Saints, who must play a dangerous Lions team Saturday night, have a better chance to win a Super Bowl in a loaded NFC field than do the Patriots (ostensibly because of their defense) in a somewhat underwhelming AFC lot.

It's amazing that Graham and Darren Sproles (who — oh, by the way — shattered the all-time total yardage mark of Derrick Mason in 2000), two players who were not on the 2009 Super Bowl team, now are record breakers in New Orleans, alongside Brees. Graham might not have kept his record, but he has been transcendent this season.

"All this stuff along the way is awesome and special, and we can reflect on that for years and years, but you play this game for championships, for rings, because that links you together forever," Brees said. "Here we are, having accomplished so much, and yet the ultimate prize is still out there."

Of course, if you watched a series of Packers-Lions, you saw two teams with offenses that are good enough to win the big prize, too. In that game, Matt Flynn broke Packers records for passing yards (480) and touchdown passes (six) and beat the Lions and Matthew Stafford, who only had the sixth-best passing game in NFL history in the 45-41 contest.

And while we're at this records business, as far as Vikings DE Jared Allen is concerned, he should have his name atop the record books if justice means anything. Anyone who watched Brett Favre flop for Michael Strahan 10 years ago, allowing Strahan to set the all-time sack mark, knows it was a sham. That means that Allen, who collected 3½ sacks Sunday against the Bears and turnstile OLT J'Marcus Webb, should have his name alongside that of the original record holder, Mark Gastineau, both with 22.

"Twenty sacks is ridiculous," Allen said after the game.

So are the rest of these head-spinning records that have fallen this season.

Now, onto the playoffs. We'll see what, if any, marks fall in the tournament. The offensive fireworks, especially in the NFC, could be mind-numbing.

 

Controversial call of the week

The Colts have become quite the hot topic. Their decision to go for wins down the stretch was met with a mixture of respect and incredulity. The people who play the game and know how players and coaches approach their jobs understand that players do not tank games for draft position. It simply does not happen in the NFL.

But the fans! What about the poor fans? They were scared out of their knickers in Indy this week, fearful that a win in Jacksonville would cost them their precious No. 1 draft pick and, naturally, a shot at Andrew Luck.

The Colts, though, got the best of both worlds: They went out to win Sunday against the Jaguars — did you see the first-quarter goal-line stand? — but lost and kept their No. 1 pick. We have 115 days to discuss the future of the Colts, Luck and Peyton Manning, so for now I'll just let you sink your mental teeth into this cryptic tweet from team owner Jim Irsay: "The season has ended and the heavy lifting begins to restore The Horseshoe to Greatness...it takes what it takes...."

Whether the Horseshoe should be counting on Luck will be tabled for another day. But today, they should be proud of the way they ended the season.

 

The wow factor

This week's edition is dedicated to the biggest passing game in Packers history and what it means for the Rams and other teams around the league:

Matt Flynn's big day Sunday made him a lot of money. He threw for 480 yards and six TDs against the Lions, the most ever by a Packers quarterback. Aaron Rodgers has never thrown for that many, nor has Brett Favre, Lynn Dickey or Bart Starr.

But Flynn's performance also might have had an interesting trickle-down effect on the QB market this coming offseason. The biggest loser Sunday? Maybe the Rams.

A week ago, it appeared the Rams would have the No. 1 pick in the draft and would sell it to the highest bidder. Three first-round picks? More?

Instead, their comeback against the 49ers came up short and the Colts lost, earning Indy the No. 1 pick. And with Flynn's monster game, he certainly opened at least one QB-needy team's eyes. The free-agent-to-be might be seen as a safer option than, say, Robert Griffin with the second pick in the draft.

There are those who warn against the thinking that Griffin is Cam Newton Jr. And maybe Flynn is no Aaron Rodgers Jr., but he is the safer pick because there is NFL tape on him.

The Rams might not get four or five teams trying desperately to trade up into their spot now, and they'll lose one potential suitor that ends up signing Flynn. You'd have to think teams such as the Redskins and Seahawks (GM John Schneider was in Green Bay when the Packers drafted Flynn) will investigate heavily into the Packers' talented backup.

 

Entertainers and icons

Why naming a player captain is not just about the letter 'C' on a jersey:

O, captain, my captain.

Needless to say, Santonio Holmes didn't have one of his finer games Sunday. Sadly, that's exactly when his Jets needed him most. That's what you ask for in your team captains.

Holmes turned in the first reception-less game of his 94-game career and, worse, quit on his teammates. That's what they were saying about him in the locker room after a 19-17 loss to the Dolphins that officially slammed the door on the Jets' postseason hopes and guaranteed that changes will be coming to Florham Park.

Holmes not only hasn't lived up to the $50 million extension he signed in July, but he also has called out his own offensive line, complained about not getting the ball enough and then, on Sunday, appeared to give up.

"It's tough for the guys to follow a captain that kind of behaves in that manner," LaDainian Tomlinson told Newsday after what might have been his final game.

Naming Holmes a captain might have been Rex Ryan's biggest regret in a season he'd like to forget. According to reports, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer might be the fall guy. But the Jets likely will remain saddled by Holmes, anchored to a big, regrettable contract.

You can make a dumb move, like receivers are wont to do, such as Santana Moss taking off his helmet in anger or Stevie Johnson making a stupid "New Year's Eve" celebration dance. But quitting on your team, as Holmes did, is just not allowed. Not for the money they paid him.

Some people were stunned that the Steelers would trade Holmes for the measly price of a fifth-round pick back in April 2010 coming off a 1,248-yard season, even with the four-game suspension he had coming that next season. But they knew what they had. They loved his talent but hated his baggage. So they thanked him for his incredible season and Super Bowl heroics and sent him on his way — to a team the Steelers play every other season.

Meanwhile, across town, two weeks to the day after the Holmes trade, the Giants signed a receiver to a minimum-salary deal that received absolutely no fanfare. Four NFL teams contacted Victor Cruz after he went undrafted out of the University of Massachusetts, but only one offered him a training-camp tryout.

That day, lost in the agate headlines, Cruz signed a three-year contract for relative pennies. So which contract — and more importantly, which player — would you want if you were a Jets/Giants fan right now?

 

Ten takeaways of the week

Here are 10 things I took from the final regular-season week until September:

1. Steve Spagnuolo is still a good coach. He might get fired by the Rams, and the team might feel like it had to make a move. But another NFL club will get a good one. He's too sharp and determined not to make it somewhere else. And there will not only be teams lined up to talk to him as a potential defensive coordinator, but also one or two that consider him as a head coach.

2. Matt Ryan and the Falcons are in the position Eli Manning and the Giants were in 2007. Manning was 0-2 in the playoffs and had to take his No. 5-seeded Giants on the road in a deep NFC field with questions of whether he — or his team — was ready for the big time. Ryan's two previous playoff games have nothing to do with this one, but it will be a defining game in his history as the Falcons travel to New York for the Sunday matchup. Manning already has his Super Bowl ring, but he knows that he and his receivers are playing well now and that they could stay hot in the postseason. Don't expect the defenses to be the dominating forces here, although they each do a few things well. The Giants rush the passer and force turnovers, and the Falcons are solid against the run.

3. Anyone feel better about the Patriots' chances? Their defense will not win them a title. If the Texans and Steelers win next weekend, that means it's Pittsburgh vs. New England. And that could mean the Patriots would lose their third straight home playoff game. For all of the greatness of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, there just isn't the well-roundedness of a Super Bowl team, it appears.

4. It sounds like a lot will change with the Jets, and not just with the coaches. Don't be surprised if some big-name players (Mark Sanchez? Bart Scott?) are shown the door. This has the feel of a semi-demolition situation.

5. Is this the last we have seen of LaDainian Tomlinson? He hinted earlier last week that this might be it, and you can't imagine too many teams showing significant interest in him. If so, it has been one hell of a run. In his prime, he was the best all-around back of his generation. And a first-ballot, no-questions-asked Hall of Famer.

6. We also bid goodbye to Jason Taylor and Jim Kleinsasser. Taylor should join Tomlinson in Canton one day for his 15 seasons as a defender with incredible versatility and ability. Kleinsasser was a very underrated tight end for years, though clearly not Hall-worthy. But still, two excellent players whose terrific careers are worth mentioning.

7. You hate to see late-season injuries for teams out of contention — just brutal. It sounds like good early news on Brian Urlacher: looks like a strained MCL, not a tear. But Dolphins WR Davone Bess, he could miss games next season if his ACL is torn.

8. It's time to get worried about the Texans. I talked to Trent Dilfer on Saturday, and he brought up a great point: With the best run game in the playoff field, the Texans could do some damage. But I worry about the quarterbacks. Sounds like T.J. Yates will play and that the shoulder has tested out so far. But the pressure of the first Houston playoff game since 1993 might be too big for the rookie, and I am not sure if Jake Delhomme could bail the team out against a plucky Bengals team in a pinch, if needed. However, I did enjoy watching him run the two-minute drill at the end of that game. Gary Kubiak made the right call, going for the two-point conversion at the end. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain and had no interest in an overtime contest with the potential for injury.

9. If there's a silver lining to the Carson Palmer trade, it's that the Raiders won't have to send an extra first-round pick to the Bengals because Oakland did not make the postseason. He made enough big plays this season to make you think the Raiders could go on a run in a soft AFC West next season, and if the Raiders make it deep into the postseason a year from now, I maintain the trade will be worth the price they paid. But for that to happen, the Raiders must run a far tighter ship a year from now. Setting an NFL record for penalties is no way to sustain postseason success.

10. Quietly, Panthers WR Steve Smith is approaching some terrific career numbers. He sits 32nd all time in receiving yards with 10,278 and should pass former teammate Keyshawn Johnson, who is 30th with 10,571, a few games into the 2012 season. If next season is as big for Smith as this one was — he finished with 1,394 yards, the third-best total of his career — he would pass another former teammate, Muhsin Muhammad, for 23rd on the list at 11,438 yards. That would put Smith on the fringe of Hall of Fame discussion, but he probably needs to go higher. If he has three more productive seasons, Smith could end up approaching Torry Holt territory. Holt sits 10th all time at 13,382 yards, and the only active players with realistic chances of passing him soon are Tony Gonzalez (13,330) and Reggie Wayne (11,733). It might take another Super Bowl run — and with Cam Newton there, who knows? — and a few more great seasons for Smith to get there. But don't count him out. He played at a very high level this season.

 

Postseason power rankings

Here's how I am ranking the NFL teams heading into the postseason:

1. Saints — The big plays slowly are coming on defense. The special teams are great. The offense? Running out of words.

2. Packers — Bit suspicious of defenses that give up that many passing yards, but they seem to get it done nonetheless.

3. 49ers — Another Dilfer tidbit: He says don't overlook this team and that given the right conditions, it can beat the two teams above them here. I say that is good enough for me.

4. Steelers — Mendenhall injury is a killer, but they are a pass-first team now, anyway.

5. Patriots — Patrick Chung is back? After his big welcome-back hit, I hardly noticed.

6. Lions — So, so dangerous. Winner of first-round game vs. Saints could go all the way.

7. Ravens — Will falter — either on the road vs. New England or at home vs. Steelers.

8. Falcons — Something tells me they have a little noise left in them. And I haven't been their biggest supporters, either.

9. Bengals — Coin-flip game in Houston. Dalton is the better rookie QB.

10. Texans — I want to see their feel-good story continue. But the last few chapters have kinda stunk.

11. Giants — Normally, I would pick them vs. the Falcons, but I have a bad feeling about their ability to cover those pass catchers.

12. Broncos — If Tebow can't do it in the fourth, can he at least improve in quarters one through three, please?