Welcome to 'After Further Review...', where we might have to go on IR with a sprained thumb after all the channel changing we did to keep up with the playoff picture, where we can’t figure out if that coal in the Patriots’ stocking was left by Santa or Karma, and where we think it’s appropriate that Tampa has most strip clubs per capita of anywhere in the US, because there was a whole lotta Bush on display there Sunday.
Week 17 may have fallen a couple of days after Christmas, but there were a couple of teams who woke up Sunday morning hoping for some better-late-than-never gifts. The Patriots needed a loss by either Baltimore or Miami -- coupled with their win -- to make the playoffs as a wild card or division winner, respectively. The Eagles needed a Tampa Bay loss and a loss by either Chicago or Minnesota -- coupled with their own win -- to make it as a wild card (some ties could've factored in, but we all those never happen). The Bucs, Bears, and Jets also needed to win and get help, but as we know by now, they couldn't hold up their end of the bargain (more on this later). The Pats and Eagles both won, but Santa wasn't nearly as kind to one as it was the other...
YES DONOVAN, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS: The Eagles were exceptionally fortunate, getting everything on their Christmas list -- losses by the Bucs to Oakland and Bears at Houston, which set the stage for a play-in game at home against struggling rival, Dallas. This time the Good Eagles showed up -- Philly might be the most scizophrenic offense in football, capable of scoring 38 or three. They came out fast, and overcame an early Brian Westbrook fumble to lay a 44-6 whipping on Dallas they won’t soon forget.
We should’ve known from years of watching the NFL when the Eagles got that tie -- that tie Donovan McNabb didn’t even know was possible, that tie that polarized the league for a week or two, that one -- it would be the difference in their season. The difference between making the playoffs and having a puncher’s chance at that long-awaited title, or missing them, and most likely saying not-so-teary goodbyes to McNabb, Andy Reid, and an entire era. Of course, most of us probably would’ve thought that 1/2-game would cost them the last spot, not be the difference in getting them in.
In that game against Cincy, they never really threatened to win. After tying the game late to force OT, the Eagles needed a missed Shayne Graham FG late in OT to escape with the tie. If that’s a loss, they’d stand at 9-7 -- the same as Chicago, Tampa, and Dallas, all of whom have the same or better conference records. That would've made for a mighty sticky tiebreaker situation.
So, I wonder what Donovan thinks of that rule, now?
BETTER LUCK NEXT YEAR: The Pats were not nearly as lucky. They played the early game, and shut out Buffalo 13-0 in a monsoon which played havoc with kicks and passes and even bent goalposts. (it even prompted a quick kick by Matt Cassel). Then they had to sit back and pin their hopes on the Jags and Jets in the afternoon. Early on in Baltimore, Jacksonville hung tough, leading after a quarter 7-3. But soon it was clear the Ravens were prepared to take care of business, and by halftime they led 24-7. So the Patriots and their fans had to pin all their hopes and dreams for the 2008 season on the fading Jets and the disintegrating Brett Favre. I don't know who felt dirtier about the situation, Pats fans still pissed about Parcells and Mangini, or Jets fans, who hate the Pats for Belichick.
The Jets jumped out to a 6-0 lead after one quarter, but missed a huge opportunity when LB Eric Barton dropped a sure pick-6 when he undercut a route and QB Chad Pennington hit him between the numbers. Miami quickly stormed back with two TD's in the 2nd quarter -- the second coming on a pick-6 off of Favre by DL Phillip Merling. New York closed it to 14-9 on a FG at the end of the half, but missed a chance to do more damage when TE Dustin Keller dropped a Favre pass in the end zone on 3rd and goal. In the 2nd half, the Jets came out strong and took the lead, but soon both teams did what they do best. What Miami does best is play defense and control the ball -- 33:48 time of possession, only one turnover (more on that later). And what the Jets do best is collapse, usually with Favre playing a leading role (more on that in a moment).
The Dolphins won to complete their amazing revival, going from a team which lost its division by a record 15 games last year to a team which won it this year. As for the Pats, they'll just have to take their shiny 11-5 record and go home for the winter. I'm sure they won't be the least bit annoyed that the Chargers will be hosting a playoff game with their 8-8 record. In fact, I'll bet Bill Belichick is chuckling at the irony of the whole situation right now.
SPEAKING OF FAVRE...: On Sunday, Brett Favre ended his season much like he ended his last -- throwing a devastating INT late in the game to seal his team's fate. Last year, Favre's pick against the Giants set up the winning FG in the NFC Championship Game, and was his last play of the year. This year, he threw a pick against the Dolphins which allowed them to run out the clock (the Jets got the ball back on their 1-yard line with just :01 left). Last year, some speculated that he might not want to end his career that way. He may not have much of a choice if he ends every year like that. After the game, Favre wouldn't comment on his retirement (don't worry, I have a funny feeling that's not the last time we'll hear about this situation), but following a three INT game -- continuing a trend of diminishing returns -- you have to think the Jets might have a much different look on offense next year, at least at QB.
DOWN IN DALLAS: The Cowboys completely failed to show up for their game in Philly, which they knew from the get-go was a win-a nd-in scenario. Not just that, but they delivered an epic stinker of a performance -- the 44-6 loss was their worst in 20 years -- the kind which make you wonder whether big changes could follow.
Owner Jerry Jones has been saying over and over that Wade Phillips will be his coach next year, but this bitch-slap from a division rival with the playoffs on the line -- after catching a beating at home against the Ravens to close out Texas Stadium last week -- may make ol’ Jer have a change of heart. Then again, the official, rubber-stamped next coach in line is Jason Garrett, the offensive coordinator who coordinated six points out of the supposedly high-powered Cowboy offense.
What might be the most troubling for the Cowboys is the fact that their golden boy, Tony Romo, was again very shaky. Not only has Romo seemingly never won a big game, but the big plays are nowhere to be found, and he's become a turnover machine. Romo suddenly looks a lot more like JT O’Sullivan than Brett Favre. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe he is looking like Brett Favre -- the 40-year old version.
Add that to an injury-riddled backfield, a porous defense, and two unhappy WR's, neither of whom seem able to get open, and it's a feeding frenzy for unhappy fans in Dallas. That's the kind of gift which keeps on giving the whole off-season.
TANKS FOR NUTHIN': While the Cowboys annual December collapse was ugly, it was nothing compared to the hideous tank job down the stretch in Tampa. I mentioned their large number of strip clubs in the open, and that's a blessing right now -- there are probably 50,000 Tampa fans who had planned to attend a Bucs playoff game this weekend for much of the season, and those guys are gonna need somewhere to kill those three hours.
In losing to Oakland on Sunday, the Bucs provided a microcosm of their season -- after taking out to a 24-14 lead through three quarters, Tampa got shut out down the stretch and allowed 17 unanswered points to finish the game and season. Now that I think of it, "Unanswered" should be the title of the 2008 Tampa Bay Buccaneer highlight reel. Once 9-3,Tampa lost their last four games, giving up an average of 31 points a game. The game turned on an ill-fated decision by John Gruden to go for it on a 4th and 4 at the Oakland 33-yard line, leading 24-21. Rather than attempt a 50-yard FG, QB Jeff Garcia threw incomplete. on the next play, the Raiders took it 67 yards for a TD to take the lead (more on that later).
Tampa's defense is in shambles, their longtime D-coordinator/Tampa 2 guru, Monte Kiffin, is gone, and their offense seems to lack direction. Their collapse stands out even in a season of collapses -- see: Cowboys, Broncos, Jets -- and is only contested by Charissa Thompson, who went from hottie to frumpy (seemingly to get some street cred), then quickly realized it was a mistake and switched back. Now it's a weird orangey color which I guess you get when you try to change your hair color twice in a week. She looked pretty good during the Niner game Sunday, but still wasn't cranking on all cylinders. But while I expect a big bounce-back year from Charissa, I'm not so sure about the Bucs.
SPEAKING OF CHOKING...: That just what the Broncos did down the stretch. Thy held a three game lead with three to play. they lost their last three, giving up over 37 a game. With a chance to clinch last week, they lost to the Bills, losers of eight of their last 10 (their only other win was against KC). The win over the Broncos was Buffalo's only win in the final five weeks of the year. Buffalo scored 30 points on Denver that day, while averaging 8.25 in the other four. Then on Sunday night at san Diego they followed that up by allowing 52 in a winner-take-all for the AFC West. Remembering now that they got a gift win vs. the Chargers earlier this year, and split their four games with KC and Oakland, their 8-8 record seems even less impressive.
On the other hand, San Diego's 8-8 record looks deceptively bad. Yes, they got two one-point wins vs. KC, but they were robbed in Denver, suffered several other close losses, and still rallied to win four straight to take advantage of Denver's generosity. If Ladainian Tomlinson is at his best, they have to be a threat in the postseason. However, there's good reason to believe Tomlinson may not be at his best. He hadn't been for most of this year, and only recently seemed to be rounding back into shape when he was hurt Sunday night. He's not exactly known for recovering quickly, or playing with pain -- even in the playoffs -- so that bears watching. Darren Sproles was excellent in his absence, as is becoming custom.
X-FACTORS: That’s right, another repeat offender. Buffalo’s super-sub RB Fred Jackson makes the list in multiple weeks like Leon Washington, Peyton Hillis and Tashard Choice before him. Subbing for injured starter Marshawn Lynch, he played in a howling wind which made passing difficult. Though his team was shut out, you can’t blame him -- he carried the ball 27 times for 136 yards, had the team’s longest play of the day (32 yards), and regularly carried multiple defenders for extra yards. The future looks bright for Jackson, but maybe not with the Bills if Lynch is the long-term solution there. That raises the possibility that he be the next Michael Turner -- a talented backup with the ability to transform the running game of a new team.
Over the last couple of years, Raiders RB Michael Bush has gotten a lot of play around this site -- more than he has on the field in the NFL -- because he was favorite candidate of some to be drafted by the Niners. But after going to the Raiders he’s been slowed by injury and competition -- starter Justin Fargas and back o’ the future Darren McFadden to be precise. But with Fargas and McFadden hobbled by injuries, Bush took over the RB duties for the Raiders in Tampa, rushing 27 times for 177 yards and 2 TD’s. His day featured 13 carries for 129 yards in the 4th quarter alone, including that 67-yard dagger to the hearts of Bucs fans i mentioned earlier. Of course, it helped that Tampa LB Derrick Brooks needed a walker to take the field for the play.
1,000 x 2: The Giants became the fifth team ever to have two different 1,000 yard rushers on the same team, and only the fourth team to have two 1,000 RB’s, when RB Derrick Ward went eclipsed the mark in New York’s 20-19 loss at Minnesota on Sunday. Ward (1,025) and Brandon Jacobs (1,089) are the first RB tandem to accomplish the feat since 1985. The previous tandems: Miami RB’s Larry Csonka & Mercury Morris*, Pittsburgh RB’s Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier*, Cleveland RB’s Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack, and Atlanta’s RB Warrick Dunn and QB Michael Vick.
* Accomplished feat in 14-game season.
UNNECESSARY ROUGHNESS: Because Ben Roethlisberger was injured -- and carried off the field on a stretcher -- in what was a meaningless game for Pittsburgh in terms of the playoffs, some will criticize head coach Mike Tomlin for playing him at all. But you have to ask yourself this: If Tomlin doesn’t play Roethlisberger this week, and after next week’s bye he comes out shaky in a Pittsburgh loss at home, don’t you think those same people might blame Tomlin for letting Big Ben and the Steelers get rusty?
Take Tennessee for instance. They rested their starters, and were shut out by Jim Sorgi and the pseudo-Colts, 23-0. Coach Jeff Fisher already had to answer questions about how this could affect his team. Should they come out flat after their bye in two weeks, those questions will multiply like Tribbles. The good news for Pittsburgh is, the Steelers say Roethlisberger passed all his tests, and should be fine in two weeks for Pittsburgh’s first playoff game.
THAT’S HISTORY: Miami held on to the record for fewest turnovers in a 16 game season, despite having some trouble holding on to the ball. The Dolphins actually fumbled three times, but were able to recover two of them. That one turnover gave them 11 for the year, edging out the previous mark, held by the 1990 Giants, by just one.
GONE WITH THE BREES: Dan Marino’s single-season record for passing yards (5,084) appeared out of QB Drew Brees’ grasp for most of the day, but after a bizarre turn of events gave him a great shot at the mark, Brees threw it away in frustrating fashion.
First, the Saints who had struggled all day, went on a 4th quarter scoring spree, with Brees throwing three TD’s to bring the Saints back from a 20 point deficit to take a 31-30 lead. Then, with Brees still 15 yards short of Marino’s record, the Panthers left :01 left on the clock after K John Kasay’s FG gave them a 33-31 lead. More surprisingly, Kasay’s squib kick went out of bounds untouched -- failing to run the final second off the clock. This gave Brees and the Saints one play from scrimmage.
Finally, coach Sean Payton chose to not have Brees attempt a near-impossible 65-yard hail mary, and instead called for a shorter, more reliable pass over the middle. This would’ve probably been followed by a lateral or seven, but we never found out -- Brees missed wide-open WR Lance Moore streaking down the hashes, ending the game, and his shot at history. Meanwhile, the Panthers narrow victory gave them the NFC South title over Atlanta as well as a first round bye.
QUICKEST FIRED EMPLOYEE: We're all well aware how quickly after the season ended the Niners announced they were keeping Mike Singletary. Cleveland’s ex-GM Phil Savage experienced the polar opposite of that when he was let go within a couple of hours of the game -- the same length of time it took him to respond obscenely to a fan’s e-mail earlier in the year. As that first link suggest, coach Romeo Crennel is likely to be next after Cleveland limped to a 4-12 record by not scoring an offensive TD in its last six games and getting shut out in its last two. In fact, in my opinion the Lions would not have gone 0-16 if they'd had the good fortune to find Cleveland on their schedule in the last quarter of the season.
WORST ANALYSIS OF THE WEEK: FOX’s Tony Boselli took the prize for claiming with just under two minutes left that the Niners should use their timeouts to conserve the clock in case the Redskins scored: “If they score you’ll need the time, and if you stop them, you can run out the clock anyway.”
There are two major things wrong with this logic: 1) The Redskins had all of their timouts left so to run out the clock, the Niners would need to get a 1st down. If they failed, they’d be punting out of their end zone. 2) It might still be sound advice if the Niners were up less than a TD -- then they’d lose if they allowed a TD without much time left. But up by seven, the Niners didn’t have much to lose to just play it out. At worst, they’re left with OT. As it was, the Redskins used all four of their downs, scored a TD, and the Niners still had time to march down for the winning FG. Eat it, Boselli!