Welcome to ‘After Further Review...’ where we treat any Frank Gore injury like a death in the family, where we believe every time Terrell Owens whines on the sidelines an angel gets its wings, and where we’re ready to bring you the odds, ends, and trends from this weekend's action in the NFL.
After an exciting Sunday, the playoff races have tightened up considerably. Suddenly, it’s that time of year when the picture comes into focus, and when you remember that down the stretch, a team’s most valuable player can sometimes be the NFL’s schedule-maker. With so many teams so close in the standings -- especially at the top of the AFC easy, where three teams are tied for first place -- often the best advantage a team can have is a weak remaining schedule.
If you looked at the Christmas wish lists of any coach in the playoff hunt right now, you’d be sure to find "A home game against the Lions, Bengals or Rams" right near the top. So let’s take a look at the closest races going right now for available playoff spots, and see how the games on their schedule stack up:
Jets (8-5) -- Buffalo, at Seattle, Miami
Patriots (8-5) -- at Oakland, Arizona, at Buffalo
Dolphins (8-5) -- San Francisco, at Kansas City, at Jets
The Jets appear to have the easiest road, as Buffalo is struggling mightily, and Seattle is just bad. If they can take care of business, they’ll likely control their own destiny at home against Miami in Week 17. Two division wins would give them five, and win them any tie-breaker against either the Pats (1-1 head-to-head record) or Miami (1-0 head-to-head). Miami appears to have the second best chance, but probably needs to beat an improved Niner team and also win in Arrowhead, a tough road venue, in order to control their own destiny against the Jets. Because of the tie-breaker situation, New England must hope to win out and for the Jets to stumble.
Also, because both Baltimore and Indy are at 9-4 (and with the Colts playing Detroit and Jacksonville the next two weeks), any stumble by these teams could not only cost them the division, but also eliminate them from Wild card contention.
Pittsburgh (10-3) -- at Baltimore, at Tennessee, Cleveland
Baltimore (9-4) -- Pittsburgh, at Dallas, Jacksonville
Obviously, the game next week goes a long way to determining the winner of the division. The Steelers hold not only a game lead, but also the tie-breaker -- they defeated the Ravens in OT 23-20 in Week 4. If the Steelers win, they would virtually clich the division. If the Ravens win, they would be tied in record, head-to-head, and division record, but the Steelers would still hold the tie-breaker based on a one-game lead in conference record. That means Baltimore would still need Pittsburgh to drop at least one of their remaining games to have a shot at the title. Seeing as one is the Titans, it’s still possible, but the Ravens must win next week.
Minneso ta (8-5) -- at Arizona, Atlanta, Giants
Chicago (7-6) -- New Orleans, Green Bay, at Houston
Minnesota has a game lead, but a much tougher schedule -- three teams in the midst of their own playoff hunts. Chicago doesn’t have it easy exactly, but none of the teams they will face are likely playoff entrants. However, Chicago needs to not only gain a game in the standings, but also to have Minnesota lose two conference games to even have a chance at the tie-breaker. Essentially, the Vikings need only to win two of their last three, or have the Bears lose either of their conference games to clicnch the division.
NFC WILD CARD #2
Dallas (8-5) -- Giants, Baltimore, at Philadelphia
Atlanta (8-5) -- Tampa, at Minnesota, St. Louis
Philadelphia (7-6-1) -- Cleveland, at Washington, Dallas
Assuming the loser between Tampa and Carolina takes the #1 Wild Card, there’s only one left for these teams. Dallas holds the tie-breaker over Atlanta based on a 1/2-game lead in conference record, but they also have the toughest schedule left. Atlanta’s isn’t exactly easy, however. Should it come down to the last week with the teams still tied, the Falcons would have the obvious advantage, but until then, it’s two likely playoff opponents for both. Still, the Cowboys have to be kicking themselves for letting their game today slip away from them.
Chicago, New Orleans and Washington are all 7-6 and still in it, but need help from each of the above teams.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY T.O. YOU: It was Terrell Owens’ 35th birthday on Sunday -- complaining on the sidelines, scoring a TD, and then more complaining on the sidelines. T.O. complained to coaches when he was shutout in the 1st half, but was much happier after halftime, when he caught three passes for 32 yards and the go-ahead TD to help the Cowboys take a 13-3 4th quarter lead. But after they blew the lead late and lost -- chiefly on two passes which went to Witten, and not him -- he was back to tantrum mode, or as I like to call it, "The Greg Knapp Zone". T.O. may not have gotten what he wanted for his birthday, but seeing him in misery as he walked off the field was definitely what I wanted for his birthday.
DIRRRRTY: The cheap shot of the year occurred in the Lions/Vikings game when Lions OL Gosder Cherilus cut Vikings DE Jared Allen on an ugly-looking play (about 15 seconds in). It’s the football equivalent of kicking a guy in the nuts (although some football players do that, too), but I’m not sure Allen has too much room to criticize. Still, he did charge Cherilus before being held back, and the tensions led to former Lion FB (and former 49er) Moran Norris being ejected for punching Vikings LB Napoleon Harris. Expect some more discussion about this throughout the week.
BAD BRAD: The Jets might want to re-consider employing plays where Brad Smith laterals the ball. Last week vs. Denver, he attempted a lateral on the reverse, the ball came loose, and the Broncos returned it for a TD. This week, they called on Smith to lateral to Leon Washington on a kickoff return against the Niners -- again the ball came loose, Washington having to make a good play to keep it from being either a TD or the ever-popular safety.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Smith made just about every highlight reel for the week in another bad way -- when he was absolutely crushed by Patrick Willis. My favorite part was when he tried to pull the old bounce-right-up-like-it didn’t-hurt thing, before having to resort to the fall-down-on-your-way-off-the-field-because-you-think-you-might-be-dying thing.
You know it was a devastating hit because you don’t see P-Willie celebrate too many hits, and he went full-on Ray Lewis after nailing Smith.
THEM’S THE RULES: In the offseason, when the NFL got rid of the “force out” rule, I wondered if DB’s in the league would be able to take advantage of this change by knocking receivers out of bounds -- or even grabbing receivers in mid-air and carrying them, or tossing them, out of bounds. I haven’t seen many examples of this kind of change this season, but in the last two weeks it’s become fairly clear that at least one team appears to have figured this out.
Twice last week in the San Diego/Atlanta game, Chargers WR Vincent Jackson leaped up to catch what appeared to be a TD pass, only to be caught around the waist in mid-air and carried out of bounds by Falcon DB’s. This week, Marques Colston got even rougher treatment -- he caught a sideline pass, but before he could get his feet down, Atlanta CB Chris Houston caught Colston around the thighs and threw him down violently out of bounds. Incomplete.
After watching highlight shows and game film, I wonder how long it is until this catches on around the league and every DB will be trying to take full advantage of this rule change.
GIANT MISTAKES: I guess maybe the Giants aren't so distraction-proof after all. I know it's possible the Giants just came out flat today, or the Eagles had their A-game, but the Giants made enough uncharacteristic mistakes Sunday to at least raise the question of whether they were distracted by the whole Plaxico Burress sideshow. Giants WR's dropped several passes, including a few back-breakers -- Domenik Hixon's drop of a long bomb, and Steve Smith's drop of a 4th and 3 pass in Philly territory with one minute left in the 1st half comes immediately to mind. On defense, Giants defenders missed several tackles, especially on Brian Westbrook's 30 yard run for Philly's first TD. After the game, Amani Toomer even hinted the Burress situation was to blame, saying "We dealt with this all week, and played our worst game -- I'll let you figure it out."
4 BURNING QUESTIONS
1. Is there an uglier uniform in the league than the Broncos when they wear their alternate Orange tops?
2. How lucky does Minnesota feel to escape this season without losing to the Lions? (They eeked out two close victories -- 12-10 and 20-16 -- with the help of crazy plays, bad calls, and coaching mistakes -- more on this in a moment).
3. Who would’ve guessed rookie backup RB Tashard Choice, filling in for the injured Marion Barber III, would compile more rushing yards (88) against the Steelers than any player all year, or that the Cowboys would lose anyway? (More on him later.)
4. Is there anyone still left willing to go on record as saying the Lions won't go 0-16?
4 BURNING QUESTIONS -- STRICTLY FOR MY NINERS EDITION
1. Am I the only the only 49er fan who doesn’t understand what the team sees in Michael Robinson as a short-yardage back?
2. Is there one 49er fan who doesn’t think they are a new and improved team since Mike Singletary took over?
3. Was I the only one happy the Jets didn’t challenge the TD scored by Joe Staley? (It looked to me like Jason Hill never had complete possession of the ball before fumbling.)
4. What’s more impressive -- that the Niners upset the Jets by 10 points, or that they did in spite of five fumbles, two turnovers in FG range, one TD called back, an injury to Frank Gore, and a partridge in a pear tree?
WHY THE LIONS ARE THE LIONS: Detroit had a legitimate shot to get their first victory this week. They stayed with Minnesota all day, and if not for a couple of bad breaks (see above) and key mistakes they might not be still looking to avoid history. One key juncture occurred at the end of the 1st half:
Leading 6-3, Detroit had a 2nd and 1 at the Minnesota 20-yard line, but failed to get a yard despite going on 4th down. However, they got the ball right back on a Gus Frerotte pick, and drove it to the 5-yard line, where WR John Standeford caught a Daunte Culpepper pass and fell to the ground untouched -- inches from the 1st down. Rather than just stick out the ball as he was touched down, he struggled to get up, and was contacted before he gain anymore ground.
Again, Rod Marinelli called for the team to go. Up in the booth, color man Tim Ryan gave some good advice: “Whatever yoyu do, don’t go up the middle on the Williams Wall.” A moment later, Culpepper tried to sneak the ball right into the teeth of the Williamses -- no gain. Viking ball. And while Minnesota was still in the shadow of their own goalposts, with only a minute to go in the half they were able to run out the clock.
GOAT OF THE WEEK: Some players are born goats, some become goats, and some have goatness thrust upon them. Falcons LB Michael Boley didn’t make a stupid play on Sunday, or an unforgivable play, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or rather, he was in the right place at the right time, but failed to take advantage.
With six minutes left in the Falcons/Saints game, Atlanta led 25-22, and New Orleans faced a 3rd and 1 at the Falcon 5-yard line. Atlanta applied pressure on Drew Brees, who tried to loft a swing pass to Reggie Bush in the flat. Boley had him blanketed, and did a job to find the ball in air, seeing it was off-target and headed right to him. He peeled off Bush, reached up and got both hands on the ball, but dropped it.
The Saints went on 4th down, made it, and went on to score the game-winning TD, and Falcons were dealt a tough loss, dropping them behind the Cowboys in their tie-breaker (conference record) for the last last playoff spot.
GOOD ANALYSIS OF THE WEEK: Again, Brian Billick separated himself from the pack of mediocre announcing to deliver insightful commentary. A good example happened on the play following the afore-mentioned drop by Boley:
On 4th and 1, the Saints ran Pierre Thomas up the middle for the 1st down. Mike Smith, however, didn’t like the spot and challenged the play. Billick right away cut to the crux of the issue: “The problem with challenging a spot is he’s gonna put it all on us, guys -- because it’s all about the camera angle.” Billick was right on -- the spot might have been off, but with no shot right down the line of scrimmage, there was no definitive proof to overturn it.
Later, when Smith chose to punt the ball to the Saints on 4th and 5, down four points with 3:23 left to play and only two timeouts, Billick again questioned the decision. He cited the fact the Falcons had allowed New Orleans to score two straight TD’s, and there was a good chance his offense might not get another chance. They didn’t, as the Saints ran out the clock.
BAD ANALYSIS OF THE WEEK: Steve Beuerlein, who badly butchered his analysis of at least two plays in the Denver/Kansas City game:
1) Beuerlein called a Tyler Thigpen pass, originally ruled an interception, a good call while replays showed it to be very questionable -- both receiver and defender had dual-possession before it fell to the ground. Replay overturned the call -- incomplete.
2) Moments later, when Herm Edwards decided to go for it on 4th and 1, Thigpen looked to have the first down, but Beuerlein claimed he was short, and questioned the spot when it proved him wrong. Replays showed the right call was made.
X-FACTOR: The above-mentioned Tashard Choice, not only had more rushing yards against the Steelers than any other player this year, he also caught five passes for 78 yards, and displayed some nice moves. When Barber and fellow rookie RB Felix Jones are healthy, he’s still #3 on the depth chart, but a nice option to have as a change-of-pace back, and may have earned himself increased playing time down the road.
THURSDAY NIGHT PREVIEW
New Orleans (7-6) at Chicago (7-6)
Like so many dome teams over the years, the Saints are great on turf and in good weather (6-1 at home), but seem to take a slight step back when playing on the road (1-5), especially in inclement conditions. If you Google "inclement conditions" you'll probably find something about December in Chicago. The Bears have found a great young RB in Matt Forte, and for that reason, I think Chicago has the edge between these two teams fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive. The loser here is all but done.
The pick: BEARS