A lot was made over whether teams who have already locked up a playoff spot should sit their starters or play them, and for how long. And while it didn't effect who made the playoffs for the most part, it did have a huge impact on two teams: The NY Jets and Houston Texans. The Jets just snuck into the playoffs as the AFC's 6th seed thanks in large part to playing two teams, the Colts and Bengals, who sat their starters for a lot of the game. Meanwhile the Texans are left wondering what could have been in their best season in franchise history. Considering the Colts beat the Texans twice in heart-braking fashion, you would think they'd at least have the common decency to make the Jets beat them for real at least once.
Patriots 27, Texans 34
The Patriots played their starters a lot longer than most teams who had already locked up a playoff spot, but it was in the 4th quarter when a lot of the starters were out that the Texans made their move. Down 27-13 early in the 4th, Matt Schaub (24/39, 303 yards, 2 TD's) led the Texans offense on 3 straight TD drives to pull out the win and keep their playoff hopes alive. The Patriots, on the other hand, lost more than the game. In the first quarter Wes Welker caught a pass, cut to the right, and blew out his knee when his leg buckled. Detractors everywhere will blame Bill Belichick for playing Welker when the Patriots already had the AFC East locked up, while forgetting to mention that it happened in the 1st quarter, and even teams who pull their players early still let them play a few series at the beginning. Now the Patriots will need to find another WR who's willing to go over the middle for the tough yards, so Randy Moss can get the glory once they get near the endzone. The Texans did get eliminated from the playoffs later in the night when the Jets won, but they can feel good knowing they finished with the best record in franchise history. Now if they can just find their sister to kiss.
During the week, the Giants players talked about playing for pride in their final game of the season. By the looks of things they must not have a very high opinion of it. Brett Favre shredded the Giants secondary for 316 yards and 4 TD's, while finishing the season with over 4,000 yards and a career low 7 interceptions. For the Giants, Eli Manning had a chance to set the single season Giants franchise passing yards record, but only completed 17 of 23 passes for 141 yards and 1 interception. It was a complete collapse from a team that started the season 5-0 and many considered a real threat to win it all. Not knowing what to make of the sudden downturn of the season, Manning said, "I'm really confused. We were playing so well at Washington and had an opportunity, and I don't know what happened to get to this point." If I had a nickle for every time I heard someone say that after playing the Redskins this season, I'd have 60 cents.
Falcons 20, Buccaneers 10
With the win, the Falcons finished with wining records in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history, though it's small consolation for a team that had high expectations coming into the season. As for the Bucs, their 3-13 record is their worst finish since 1991. The Bucs did tie the game early in the 4th at 10-10 with an 8 yard pass from rookie QB Josh Freeman to Antonio Bryant (yes, that Antonio Bryant), but the Falcons scored the last 10 points and got the win. The youngest head coach in the NFL, Raheem Morris, was the talk of a lot of speculation after the game. Despite winning 2 of their last 3 games, it's unclear if Morris will be back with the Bucs next season. "You guys didn't give me a vote of confidence either," Morris told reporters after the game. "You can get fired tomorrow, too. But nobody is asking you that question." Maybe that's because nobody cares if a sports writer gets fired.
The Panthers beat up on the Saints JV team and 49er fans everywhere were wondering if this game should really count as a W in the Panthers standing. Mark Brunell got the start over Drew Brees and he looked like a 39 year old QB who hasn't started a game in over 3 years, completing 15 of 29 passes for 102 yards and 1 interception. Jeremy Shockey also didn't play for the Saints, Reggie Bush only carried the ball 5 times, and almost all of the Saints starters on defense were watching in the 2nd half. Situations like this are the reason NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, said the NFL will consider offering incentives, such as draft picks, for teams to play their starters when the games are meaningless for playoff positioning. I'm not sure how fair it is to give teams that are so good they don't mind losing a game or two at the end of the season, extra draft picks. I actually have a better solution. Tell owners they'll have to refund fans who purchased tickets, the percentage of the ticket price that's equal to the percentage of the game the starters sat. That will fix the problem in a hurry.
If the Eagles won this game, they'd have the #2 seed in the NFC and a first round bye. If the Cowboys won, they'd get to play the Eagles again next week in Dallas. I guess the Cowboys really wanted to play them again. Tony Romo seems to be shaking off the late season struggles that have plagued him, completing 24 of 34 passes for 311 yards and 2 TD's. Donovan McNabb, on the other hand, took over the roll of struggling QB as he completed 20 of 36 passes for 223 yards and several times missed wide open receivers. Cowboys coach, Wade Phillips, also has quited detractors with the incredible play of the defense, and seems to have ensured his team option will be picked up for next season. That is, of course, unless the Cowboys completely fall apart next week, in which case he'll probably be out of a job.
After the Boncos blew a 3 game lead with 3 games to play last season, they went through some major changes. Mike Shanahan and his coaching staff, plus several players including the star QB Jay Cutler, were shown the door. But in spite of all the changes, this years results were almost identical. It's unlikely the Broncos will go through all the same changes again, but something has to be done after finishing another 8-8 season with a home loss to the lowly Chiefs. As for the Chiefs, there's no doubt they've found Larry Johnson's replacement in Jamaal Charles. Charles rushed for 259 yards and 2 TD's and finished the season with1,120 yards, with 968 of those yards and all 7 of his TD's coming in the final 8 games of the season. So while the Chiefs seemed to have found their identity as a smash mouth running team, the Broncos don't seem to know which way to go. Things are so bad that in an ironic twist, Brandon Marshall, who was told not to be at the game after showing up late for an appointment with the team doctor to see if he was exaggerating his hamstring injury, was featured on the game day program. I guess it would have cost too much to reprint new ones.
If you haven't seen Willis McGahee toss aside Hiram Eugene like a cheep rag doll, go watch it on youtube now. With the Ravens holding a slim 7-3 lead in the second quarter, McGahee broke through the Raiders line and only Eugene stood in the way of a TD. So instead of trying to run around him, McGahee simply threw him out of his way and kept going. "I wasn't expecting it to work that way," McGahee said after the game. "I was shocked just like everyone else was shocked. I knew I was gonna stiff arm, but I didn't know he was going to fall backward. There's no going back though, you got to keep going forward." The Raiders did fight back and only trailed 14-13 going into the 4th, but once again JaMarcus Russell had to fill in for an injured Charlie Fry. But unlike last time when he led the Raiders on a game winning drive, this time Russell turned the ball over 2 times (1 interception, 1 fumble) and the boo's rained down on him. It was the Raiders 7th straight season with at least 11 losses, an NFL record. Considering that's a bigger run of futility than even the Lions, that's an impressive accomplishment.
Ken Whisenhunt took his Cardinal starters out early on Sunday. Mike McCarthy let his Packer starters play long into the game. Will see next week, when the Packers and Cardinals play again, which strategy was better. Green Bay won 8 of their last 9 games to get into the playoffs, while the Cardinals are just happy they play in the NFC West. The only real thing of note in the game was that Charles Woodson had a 45 yard interception returned for a TD, his 3rd on the season, which greatly strengthens his case for defensive player of the year. McCarthy told reports the reason he left his starters in so long was because, "We wanted to come out here to win the game, keep our razor sharp and gain some momentum going into the playoffs. It didn't matter who we were playing. I understand Arizona had a different agenda...We like the way we played the last eight weeks and it was very important for us to maximize this opportunity." Apparently it was also important to put the fear of God into the Cardinals with a major beat down.
Colts 7, Bills 30
The Bills won but I'm not sure if that really means a whole lot considering the Colts treated it like a preseason game. In very snowy conditions, the Colts benched most of their starters by the second half, but several stayed in just long enough to reach some milestones. Both Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark reached 100 catches on the season, and Manning ended at exactly 4,500 yards passing. In response to being pulled Manning said, "It's not much fun to stand on the sideline as you see the score going the other way." Just be grateful you're not Steven Jackson.
The Browns came into this game having won 3 straight games. The Jaguars came in having lost 3 straight. Both streaks remained intact after the game. If you're wondering how a team that started the year 1-11 can finish with four straight wins, I'll tell you it's definitely not because of the QB play. In 3 of the 4 wins, the Browns QB has thrown for under 100 yards. What they did do better was run the ball and stop other teams from scoring. Teams got a heavy dose of Jerome Harrison who rushed for 570 yards during the streak, including 121 and 1 TD against the Jags, and the Browns defense gave up almost 10 points less per game. So the question now is, will it be enough to save Eric Mangini's job? To answere that question you have to ask yourself if two strong-willed men, who are accustomed to enormous power, can find a way to share it? And if you really don't know the answere to that one, just ask Paul McCartney how things worked out between him and John Lennon.
The Steelers jumped out to a 27-10 lead before holding off a resilient Dolphins comeback late in the 4th to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. Unfortunately for the Steelers, those playoff hopes died around 3 hours later. There was a scary moment in the game when Dolphins backup QB, Pat White, had a head to head collision with CB Ike Taylor and collapsed to the ground in a heap. He ended up alright but I'm sure he'll give more consideration to sliding next time. Ben Roethlisberger, who was 18 of 27 for 220 yards and 3 TD's, did his best Captain Obvious impersination after the game when he said, "I'd rather we go out with a win than a loss." Santonio Holmes echoed that remark by saying, "We finished the season the way we were supposed to." Too bad you didn't do what you were supposed to against the Chiefs, Raiders, and Browns.
Bears 37, Lions 23
Jay Cutler and the Bears played their best football at the beginning and ending of the season. It was just that 2-8 record in the middle that really messed things up for them. For the second straight week Jay Cutler threw 4 TD's, but more importantly, he didn't add to his league leading 26 interceptions. Cutler told reporters, "We've got to get that number down." Who's we? And just like Mangini, there's talk that Lovie Smith might be done in Chicago after missing the playoffs for the 3rd straight season. The Bears owe Smith 11 million over the next to seasons, but GM Jerry Angelo insisted money won't affect the decision. How do people say things like that with a straight face?
Redskins 20, Chargers 23
Like most teams that had already wrapped things up, the Chargers let their backups play most of the game. But against the Redskins, apparently backups are all you need. Billy Volek threw a 2 yard TD pass to Mike Tolbert with 35 seconds left to rally the Chargers to the win. The win ended Jim Zorn's tenure as the Redskins head coach as he was fired on Monday. How he ever got promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach when he didn't have experience with either, is still a mystery to me. Jason Campbell looked decent for the Redskins completing 28 of 42 passes for 281 yards and 2 TD's. Afterwards he told reporters, "The team is going to be broken up in a lot of ways." I wonder if he was referring to himself.
This game was all about Chris Johnson. With nothing but pride to play for, the Titans made sure that Johnson became a part of history. Needing 128 yards to become just the 6th RB to break 2,000 yards, Johnson got 36 carries for 134 yards and 2 TD's. He also broke Marshell Faulk's record of 2,439 for most yards from scrimage with 2,509. Johnson even scored the winning TD on a 1 yard run with only 4:33 to play. He may have even had a chance to break Eric Dickerson's rushing record of 2,102 but a 62 yard TD run was called back on a questionable holding call. Ed "I workout" Hochuli told reporters that, "The ruling was that [Hawthorne] was hooked with both arms at the point of attack, and pulled away from where the ball carrier ran right by him." Ahmard Hall, who was called for the penalty said, "Yeah, I've done that in all 16 games, but I dont want to question the call." Of course not. That would bring down the wrath of Rodger Goodell and players aren't allowed to question anything the NFL does.
Bengals 0, Jets 37
J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets! The Jets are back in the playoffs and they want to make sure everyone knows they deserve to be there. "I don't believe we backed into anything," Jets head coach Rex Ryan said, "so we're going to prove it." The Jets staunch defense was the story of the game. Bengals QB, Carsen Palmer, only completed 1 of his 11 passes and it was for 0 yards. That's not a typo. Palmer threw the ball 11 times for 0 yards. He also threw an interception. Everyone's favorite ex-49er, J.T. "I have more capitals in my name than you" O'Sullivan came in to play the second half but the results were the same. For the game the Bengals only managed 72 yards of total offense. The Jets also seem committed to the strategy of limiting rookie QB Mark Sanchez as much as possible. Sanchez only threw the ball 16 times, completing 8 for 63 yards, but they rushed the ball 57 times for 257. So who do the Jets get to play in the playoffs? The Bengals of course. Only next time it will be in Cincinati. "We'll be fine," Chad Ochocinco said in response to the blowout. "We'll study a lot of things we can fix, especially offensively. Next week will be a lot more serious." I hope for the sake of football fans everywhere, it is.
The final score doesn't show how close the game really was, but the 49ers did what they were supposed to do, and won the game. Anyone hoping we'd get a good feel for the kind of QB Alex Smith will become, are still left wondering. He's like the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde of QB's. He'll look horrible and lost one moment and then he'll look like Peyton Manning the next. I'm giving him one more season then I'm done. I mean it this time. Next season he needs to put up or shut up. That's it. No more second chances. That is until I say the same thing at the end of next season.