Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The NFL Blog: Wild Card Round Betting Lines

Last Week: Vs. Spread (8-7-1); Straight Up (12-4)
Season: Vs. Spread (121-124-11); Straight Up (161-92-1)

Week 17 Review: I had a decent week in the final week of the regular season, going 12-4 straight up and getting a winning record ATS. But it wasn’t enough to give me a .500 record for the season ATS.

Wild Card Round Preview: This is a pretty weird Wild Card Round of the playoffs isn’t it? Not one of the 4 home teams is favored. Not one of them! That’s bizarre. I’m nervous about picking 3 road teams to win but that happened in 2004 and 2005. The AFC games are tough because all 4 teams come into the game on hot streaks. In the NFC, the visiting teams are clearly the hot teams but the Cardinals are a bit of a mystery. It should be a very interesting weekend of games.

Saturday’s Late Day Game

Atlanta (-1) @ Arizona
Pick: Cardinals pull off the upset.
Comment: Man I sure had my heart set on that division title. I just knew it was going to happen. It’s unbelievable how different the Falcons’ road became when John Kasay hit that kick. The Falcons are a 1 point favorite in this one despite being on the road and a lot of people seem to think the Falcons will have no problem winning this game. Mark Bradley wrote a big article in the AJC about how going to Arizona to play the Cardinals is a perfect draw for the Falcons. I wish I saw it that way. I’m really, really concerned. Yes, I’ve doubted the Falcs most of the way this season but I really don’t feel like my feelings are based on trying to protect myself from disappointment in this situation. The Falcons couldn’t possible disappoint me at this point, provided that nobody gets arrested for soliciting prostitution from an undercover cop the night before the game or kills any dogs. I just don’t think playing the Cards at Arizona is a good matchup for us. I’ve got a lot more to say on the subject but that’s more for the Falcons Blog. But there are a few main points. For one thing, the Falcons will have to travel. They are 7-1 at home; 4-4 on the road. They are 8-2 indoors; 3-3 on grass. The Cards are 3-5 on the road; 6-2 at home. The next big issue is Arizona’s passing attack against the Atlanta defense. The Falcons defense has had some major issues defending the pass. Arizona is the worst rushing team in the League, but the Falcons have struggled to stop the run against teams such as the Saints and the Rams recently, teams that didn’t run well all year. On the other side of the ball, Arizona is solid against the run which is obviously Atlanta’s biggest strength. If they take the run away it will be up to rookie QB Matt Ryan to play a great game. While Ryan has been tremendous this season, his play has undeniably dropped off in the last few weeks. It could be that he’s hitting that rookie wall that they talk about. Arizona has a very opportunistic defense and Matty has not been very good about taking care of the ball in recent weeks. Then there are the Atlanta injury issues. If Lawyer Milloy can not play for the Falcons I think it will be a huge loss. Obviously if John Abraham isn’t going at 100% the Falcons will get picked apart by Kurt Warner and his 3 one thousand yard receivers. You can say that the Falcons have been playing better as of late, but it’s hard to know what to make of the finishes by either team. Obviously the Falcons have been doing something right, as they won their last 3 games and 5 of their final 6. But they haven’t really been firing on all cylinders since the Carolina game in week 12. Arizona was embarrassed in weeks 15 and 16 but how much of that had to do with the fact that they had clinched the division so early? And then there’s the issue of psyche. The Cards are going into this thing with no one believing in them. The Falcons are suddenly a team that many people are expecting to win. This will be a new thing for them. Handling expectations can be tough. I believe the Falcons can win this game and it wouldn’t shock me because they have gotten the job done so many times this year. But I just wouldn’t bet on it. I don’t think we’ll be able to slow Warner and the Cards offense down enough. I think Arizona will win and the dream will end. But I hope I’m wrong.

Saturday’s Night Game

Indianapolis (-1) @ San Diego
Pick: Colts cover.
Comment: This is the one I’m least certain about. Both teams come into this game hot but when it comes to these two teams, how much does that really matter? In 2005, the Colts went 14-2, and then they went out and lost at home in the divisional round to the #6 seed Steelers as a 10.5 point favorite. In 2006, the Colts started out 9-0 but then went 3-4 in their final 7 games and their defense looked helplessly awful against the run. They lost the first round bye and home field advantage, entering the playoffs as a #3 seed, but they ended up winning the Super Bowl. Last year the Colts were that team that “nobody wants to play.” They had won 6 straight until playing their reserves in a meaningless game against the Titans in the final week of the year that they lost to finish 13-3. Then they lost at home in the divisional round to the Chargers as a 10 point favorite. My point is that I’m not sure it’s definitely a good thing that the Colts are going into this thing as one of the popular “picks to click.” The Chargers were on a roll going into the playoffs in 2004, 2006, and 2007. In those first 2 years they lost as a home favorite in their first playoff game. Last year they won their first two games and then played the Patriots very tight in the AFC Championship Game despite some serious injuries. So I don’t know what it means that the Chargers are on a roll going into the playoffs. The Chargers have the home field advantage, but again, I’m just not sure how much that really matters in this case. The Chargers have lost 3 times at home this season, including once to the Colts, and Indy is 6-2 on the road. The Chargers have lost at home in the playoffs and the Colts have won on the road in the playoffs. I think the Chargers are playing their best right now but I still don’t think they’re as good as the team that beat the Colts on the road in the divisional round last year. I was starting to think that LT was rounding into form just in time for the postseason but then he missed the entire second half last week with a groin injury. I think Phillip Rivers will be able to throw on the Colts but I also think the Colts will be able to pressure him at times. Indy has no running game but I don’t think they’ll need it against San Diego, the worst team defending the pass in the entire NFL. This was a tight game in the regular season and I think it’ll be close this week too. But in the end I like the Colts to come out on top.

Sunday’s Early Game

Baltimore (-3) @ Miami
Pick: Ravens cover.
Comment: This game seems like the easiest to predict to me. Of course that means nothing, but honestly, there aren’t a lot of arguments to be made in favor of the Dolphins winning this game. They have just gotten it done over and over again this year and perhaps they will do that again this week. They are at home and Baltimore’s QB is a rookie. Other than that, all signs point to Baltimore in my opinion. The Dolphins have won 5 straight and 9 of 10, but most of those wins have been unimpressive victories over mediocre or below mediocre teams. Baltimore has won 9 of 11 and most of their wins have been very impressive victories over better than average teams. In week 7, the Ravens went to Miami and won 27-13. Now, the Dolphins began their 9-1 stretch immediately after that game, but I still think that first game is a good hint of what will happen this weekend. The Ravens defense is very difficult to do anything against and the offense won’t need to do much to score enough points to win. The Ravens went 5-3 on the road this year and those losses were to the Steelers in OT and to the Colts and Giants. Not exactly the 3 worst teams in the League. The Dolphins lost 3 times at home this season, including to the Ravens in week 7. I think the Dolphins will keep it very respectable but I like the Ravens to win by at least a touchdown.

Sunday’s Late Day Game

Philadelphia (-3) @ Minnesota
Pick: Eagles cover.
Comment: I definitely like the Eagles to win this game but I think it will be very close and it could very well be decided by exactly 3 points. However, I think there’s more of a chance of the Eagles winning by 4 or more than there is of the Vikings coming within 2 points or better. I’m sure Adrian Peterson will have some success running the ball like always but the Vikings will have to ask Tavaris Jackson to throw the ball occasionally. When that happens, I believe Jim Johnson’s defense will force him into mistakes. Remember, Brad Childress is former Eagle offensive coach, Johnson probably knows his offensive game plan inside and out. The Vikings say Pat Williams is going to try to play but I don’t know how much he can really do with a broken shoulder. The Eagles are pretty healthy on offense right now and I think they’ll be able to do a lot against Minnesota’s defense even if Williams is in there all game. The Eagles are just 3-4-1 on the road this year and the Vikings are 6-2 at home. But I don’t think playing at the Metrodome will be enough to get the Vikings a win against the Eagles.

The NFL Blog: Week 16 and 17 Reviews

Week 16 Review

Titans D Up, Dominate Steelers to Clinch #1 Seed in AFC

Week 16 featured a pair of highly anticipated matchups between the top two teams in each conference. For all intents and purposes, the games would decide who won the #1 seed of each conference and therefore home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The AFC’s game for home field advantage was held during the early part of Sunday’s action and took place in Nashville where the 12-2 Titans hosted the 11-3 Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers were without question the hotter team, as they came into the game riding a 5 game win streak, having beaten the Patriots, Cowboys, and Ravens in the previous 3 weeks. Hit by injuries early on, the Steelers were finally starting to get healthy and were hitting on all strides. Meanwhile, it was the Titans who were now dealing with heavy injuries. It was thought by many that the Titans had peaked too soon, as they had started out 10-0 but lost 2 of their last 4 games, including a 13-12 loss to the Texans the week before. Many thought Pittsburgh’s top rated defense would dominate Tennessee’s offense and that the absence of Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch in the Titans’ defensive line would allow the Steelers offense to have success. Though the game would be played in Tennessee, the home team found themselves 2.5 point underdogs.

But reports of the Tennessee Titans’ demise were greatly exaggerated, as they shut up critics and wrapped up the AFC’s top seed, hammering the Steelers 31-14. The shorthanded Titan defense sacked Ben Roethlisberger 5 times and forced him into 4 turnovers that Tennessee turned into 21 points. The Titan offense amassed 322 yards, becoming the first team to gain 300 yards against the Steeler defense all season. Pittsburgh had 7 more 1st downs than Tennessee (23-16) and outgained the Titans by 52 yards (374-322), but the Titans held a 4-0 edge in the turnover department. Tennessee rushed for 117 yards while holding the Pittsburgh ground game to just 73 yards. The Steelers held Tennessee to 3 for 14 on 3rd down while the Pittsburgh offense was 6 for 13 on 3rd down conversions, but the Titans were a perfect 2 for 2 on 4th down.

Tennessee’s offense started slowly against the Steeler defense as expected and Pittsburgh was on the verge of taking an early lead when Big Ben made his first and most costly mistake of the day. On 3rd and goal from the Tennessee 7, Roethlisberger took off running towards the end zone and when his path was cut off he leapt for the goal line. Jason Jones delivered a hit that stopped Big Ben at the 1 and knocked the ball loose. William Hayes recovered the fumble to keep the Steelers off the board. The 1st quarter ended scoreless but the Titans took the lead early in the 2nd quarter on a field goal by Rob Bironas. On Pittsburgh’s first drive of the 2nd quarter Big Ben was sacked by Hayes and lost another fumble, this time giving the Titans the ball at the Steelers’ 39. Moments later on 3rd and 5, Kerry Collins found Justin Gage down the left side for a 34 yard TD strike to make it 10-0 Titans. Pittsburgh responded with a 10 play, 80 yard TD drive, during which they converted on 3 separate 3rd downs to cut the score to 10-7. The Steelers had a shot to tie the game going into halftime but Jeff Reed missed a 33 yard field goal as time expired and the Titans took a 3 point lead to the locker room.

Pittsburgh would take the lead early in the 3rd quarter on Big Ben’s 2nd TD pass of the game, but the Titans responded with an 11 play, 72 yard drive for a TD that gave them the lead for good. Kerry Collins completed a 21 yard pass to Gage on 3rd and 8 from their own 37 for a big 1st down, and then on 3rd and 20 from the Pittsburgh 40, Collins completed a pass for 19 yards that set up a 4th and 1 from the Steeler 21. On 4th down, Chris Johnson took a handoff and went over left guard, 21 yards for a huge TD that gave the Titans the lead again, 17-14 with 5:05 to play in the 3rd quarter. Pittsburgh drove to the Tennessee 47 on their next possession, but on 3rd and 2 Big Ben was picked off by Michael Griffin at the 31 and he returned it all the way to the Pittsburgh 37. Late in the quarter, with the Titans set to kick a field goal on 4th and 1 from the 4, a penalty on James Harrison gave the Titans a 1st and goal at the 2. Lendale White scored from 1 yard out on the 1st play of the 4th quarter to increase the Titans’ lead back to 10. Pittsburgh was unable to recover. In the final minute, Griffin intercepted another Roethlisberger pass deep in Tennessee territory and he returned this one 86 yards to put the finishing touches on the Titan victory. With the 31-14 win the Titans moved to 13-2 and clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Panthers Freeze Late, Giants Win in Overtime to Clinch #1 Seed in NFC

The NFC’s version of 1 vs. 2 was held amid frigid temperatures on Sunday night in East Rutherford, New Jersey where the 11-3 New York Giants hosted the 11-3 Carolina Panthers at Giants Stadium. Like in the AFC matchup earlier in the day, the visiting team was the one ridding momentum heading into the game. Carolina entered the game on a 3 game win streak and many were saying that the Panthers were a team that bore a strong resemblance to the New York team of the year before that got hot at the right time and won it all. Like the Titans, the Giants were a banged up team that many were staying had peaked too early, having begun the year 11-1 before losing their last 2 games prior to this one. Despite this, the home team was a 4 point favorite going into the Sunday night showdown.

Most people doubted that New York would lose a 3rd straight game, but for most of the night it looked like the Giants were indeed bound to lose their grip on the top seed and like the Panthers were going to take over power in the NFC. It looked like the Panthers had “out-Gianted” the Giants. But Carolina couldn’t slam the door shut and the Giants again showed their grit and heart, coming back and taking the game from the Panthers in overtime, 34-28, to reestablish their place atop the conference and sew up the #1 seed. In a well played game that featured no turnovers by either team, the Giants pounded the rock over and over, hogging the ball for a 13 minute edge in time of possession, and eventually breaking the Carolina defense. The Giants outgained the Panthers by 116 yards (459-343) and had 9 more 1st downs (25-16). Like the Giants a year before, the Panthers had risen to their current place on the back of a super rushing attack and they had success against the Giants as well, rushing 35 times for 158 yards, an average of 4.5 yards per carry. But New York took the challenge and responded with an overpowering rushing attack, gaining 301 yards on 41 attempts, averaging 7.3 yards a pop, and letting the football world know that the superior power ground game in the NFL still resided in New York. The Giant pass rush went without a sack while Eli Manning went down on 3 separate occasions. The Panthers were 6 of 12 on 3rd down and Jake Delhomme took care of the ball and threw for more yards than Manning. But Manning threw for the game’s only TD pass and the Giant offense was 9 for 16 on 3rd down conversions. As important as anything else was the fact that New York made both of their field goal tries in the inclement weather while Carolina missed on their only FG attempt.

The Giants drove for a field goal on the opening possession of the game, with Brandon Jacobs running hard on 5 carries along the way as they took a 3-0 lead. The Panthers responded by going 73 yards on just 7 plays on their first possession to take the lead, with Steve Smith running for 23 yards and catching a pass for 35 yards, and DeAngelo Williams going in from 12 yards out to make it 7-3 Carolina. The Giants went back to Jacobs on their next possession and he led them on a long, clock eating TD drive to retake the lead. Early in the 2nd quarter, Jacobs scored from 2 yards out to cap a 13 play, 74 yard drive that took 7:38 off the clock and put New York back in front 10-7. The Panthers were not fazed, however, as they answered with a 66 yard TD drive. Williams ran left and scored on a 5 yard run to put the Panthers back on top 14-10 midway through the 2nd. The Panther defense then made a play that swung the game in Carolina’s favor, stopping the Giants on 3rd and 1 from their own 29 to force a 3 and out. The Panthers got the ball back at their 35 and on the 1st play of the possession Delhomme threw deep down the left side for Muhsin Muhammad, who made the catch and took the ball to the New York 5 yard line for a 60 yard gain. Smith appeared to score on a 3 yard TD pass on 2nd and goal, but the Giants challenged and the ball was marked down at the 1. On 3rd and goal Williams made it a moot point, scoring from 1 yard out to give the Panthers a commanding 21-10 lead with less than 5 minutes to play in the half. Late in the half the Giants drove to the Panther 17 but they had to settle for another field goal which cut the score to 21-13 going to intermission.

The Panthers had chances to make it a 2 score game again early in the 3rd quarter. They got the ball 1st in the 2nd half and drove into Giant territory before stalling and punting it away. Their next drive began at the New York 48 but they could get no farther than the 43 and had to punt again. Though they hadn’t added to their lead, the Panthers were controlling the game. That’s when Eli Manning stepped up and led the Giants on a clutch drive. New York went 84 yards on 12 plays, taking 8:36 off the clock, with Manning hitting on all 6 pass attempts during the march, including on 3rd and goal from the 4 when he found Kevin Boss in the end zone to make it a 1 point game with less than a minute to play in the 3rd. But Jake Delhomme matched Manning’s effort on Carolina’s next drive, completing passes to convert a pair of 3rd downs. Early in the 4th quarter, Williams got loose and ran 30 yards down the right side and into the end zone to stretch the Panther lead back to 8 at 28-20. New York drove to the Carolina 30 on their next possession, but on 3rd and 7, Manning was sacked for an 8 yard loss by Julius Peppers. The Giants were in no man’s land, facing 4th and 15 at the 38. Here veteran punter Jeff Feagles made a key play, dropping a punt at the 1 yard line to pin Carolina with 9:21 to play. The Panthers went 3 and out and the Giants got the ball back at Carolina’s 44 with 7:09 on the clock. Manning completed passes on a pair of 3rd downs as the Giants gained a 1st and goal at the 5. A pass interference call made it 1st and goal at the 1 and then Jacobs busted threw to make it 28-26 with 3:21 remaining. The Giants would have to go for 2 and they got it, with Manning throwing to Domenik Hixon for the conversion to tie it up.

The Panthers were not deterred. Mark Jones returned the ensuing kickoff to the Carolina 38, and one play into the possession the Panthers had a 1st down inside New York territory with 2:41 on the clock. After the 2-minute warning, the Panthers faced a 3rd and 9 from the Giants 48 and Delhomme threw to Muhammad for a gain of 11 and a first down at the 37. On the next play, Williams ripped off 9 yards to the 28. This play appeared to spell doom for the Giants. The Panthers looked to have a 2nd and 1 at the 28 needing only a field goal to take the lead. To make matters worse, Justin Tuck—who had been playing through sickness all night—was injured on the play and couldn’t get off the field, and New York was charged with a mandatory timeout, leaving them with only 1 remaining and just 1:11 on the clock. But things were not as bleak as they first appeared. There was a flag on the play, and Steve Smith was called for a holding penalty. Instead of 2nd and 1 at the 28, the Panthers would have 1st and 13 at the 40. The Giant defense then came up big. Williams was stuffed for no gain on 1st down and the Giants called their last timeout. On 2nd down Williams gained 7 yards before going out of bounds to stop the clock with 54 seconds left. On 3rd and 6 from the 33, Williams ran up the middle and was stopped after a gain of 1. The Panthers let the clock run all the way to 9 seconds left and then called a timeout. John Kasay came out for a 50 yard field goal try to win the game. He missed wide left. The Giants were still alive and the game was headed to OT.

The Panthers had missed a couple of chances to win it in regulation and it looked like they would not get another chance in overtime, as the Giants won the all important coin flip. But once again the Panthers were not scared. The Carolina defense forced a 3 and out and took over at their own 39. On 3rd and 3 from the 46, New York’s defense forced an incomplete pass from Delhomme and the Panthers had to punt. RW McQuarters went back to field the punt at the 19, and for a moment the game was dangling on a thread as he muffed the kick and it bounded behind him towards the Giants’ end zone. But McQuarters was able to fall on the ball at the 13 yard line to save possession. Still, New York was backed up deep in their own territory. But after being pounded by Jacobs all night and being on the field for the majority of 4 plus quarters of football, the Carolina defense was worn out and they couldn’t handle Derrick Ward. Ward went up the middle on the 1st play of the possession and broke a long run, taking the ball all the way to the Panther 36 for gain of 51. On 3rd and 7 from the 33, Ward went right for 14 yards and a 1st down at the 19. Instead of a field goal try of 48 or 50 yards, the Giants were now within a field goal of around 35 yards. But there was no reason to rush things. The Panthers called a timeout but it didn’t help the defense stop Ward, as he went for 17 yards on the next play before going out of bounds at the 2. That set up 1st and goal from the 2, and on the next play Manning gave to Jacobs and he busted over the line to give the Giants the win. New York got the victory 34-28 in overtime to go to 12-3 and clinch the #1 seed in the NFC and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Manning in Classic Form, Leads Colts to Comeback Win and Playoff Berth

The final Thursday night game of the season was held in week 16, with the red hot Indianapolis Colts playing the Jaguars in Jacksonville. It was a matchup that looked like a possible battle for the AFC South Title when the schedules came out prior to the season. But the Jacksonville Jaguars were the NFL’s most disappointing team and they had nothing but pride to play for in this one. The Colts, on the other hand, had everything to play for. They had won 7 in a row and with a win over the Jags they would clinch a 7th straight trip to the postseason. 1 of the few highlights of the season for Jacksonville had been their thrilling win over the Colts in Indy in week 3, it was one of the few times this season that the Jags had looked like the Jags of the last few years. And for most of this night it appeared they would have 1 more highlight and complete a season sweep of their division rivals. But Peyton Manning wouldn’t let his team lose. The Indy defense finally stepped up late in the game and the Jags went back to playing like they had most of this season.

Jacksonville put up 404 yards of offense and gained 28 first downs while holding the Colts running game to just 32 yards on 18 carries. It was all up to Peyton Manning to rally his troops and he was up to the challenge, hitting his first 17 passes and finishing the game 29 of 34 for 364 yards, 3 TD, and no picks. Jacksonville took control of the game early, scoring on a swift, 8 play, 62 yard TD drive to start the night in front of a fired up crowd. The Jags got the ball back at their own 7 and proceeded to go on a 17 play, 93 yard TD drive that finished off the rest of the 1st quarter and took up the first 3 and a half minutes of the 2nd quarter. The Colts had come into the game as 5.5 point favorites but they now found themselves down 14-0. Manning cut the score in half with a 41 yard TD strike to Reggie Wayne on the 2nd Indy possession. On their next possession the Colts looked to tie the game up as they moved inside the Jax 10 yard line as the clock ticked under 2 minutes to go in the half. But on 3rd and 1 from the 9, Dominic Rhodes was thrown for a 2 yard loss and the Colts had to settle for a 30 yard field goal try. Adam Vinatieri never misses the big kicks; it’s the seemingly gimmie kicks that he randomly seems to miss every once in a while. He missed wide left here and the score remained 14-7. But Jax wasn’t satisfied. With just 1:03 on the clock and starting from their own 20, the Jags moved down the field and got in position for a 44 yard field goal to take a 17-7 lead to halftime.

The Colts opened the 2nd half with a TD drive but Jacksonville matched it, converting 3 different 3rd downs along the way and taking nearly 8 minutes off the clock. That devastating drive put the Colts down 10 again with just 2 and a half minutes left in the 3rd quarter. The Colts had the ball in Jacksonville territory as the 4th quarter began but Manning had to complete a pass for a 1st down on 3rd and 10 and then threw a TD pass to Dallas Clark on 3rd and goal from the 1 to make it a 3 point game again with 12 and a half minutes left. It didn’t seem to matter what Manning did because the Colts defense had shown no signs of being able to stop the Jags. But all of the sudden Indy’s defense came through with their first 3 and out of the night to get the ball right back in Peyton’s hands. On this possession the Colts were actually able to get something done on the ground but on 3rd and 1 from the Jax 27 they gave the ball to the full back and he was stopped for no gain. Vinatieri then hit a 44 yard field goal and the Colts finally caught Jacksonville with 6:28 on the clock. The game had now clearly swung in Indy’s favor and the Jags made the fall complete moments later. On 3rd and 4 from the Jax 28, David Garrard was intercepted by Keiwan Ratliff and he took it 35 yards to the house to give the Colts their first lead of the game, 31-24, with 4:48 on the clock. Jax drove to the Indy 34 on their next possession, but Raheem Brock came up with a sack for a loss of 16 yards on 3rd and 4 to force Jax to punt. Indy was unable to convert a 3rd and 1 from their 47 and had to punt the ball back to the Jags. Jacksonville took over at their own 10 yard line, down 7, with no timeouts. Just like the first game between these two teams, it came down to Jacksonville’s offense against Indy’s defense in the end. Garrard drove the Jags to the Indy 7 yard line, but on 2nd and goal, Dwight Freeney decked Garrard for a sack and a 9 yard loss and the Jags were unable to get another play off. The Colts hung on for the comeback win, 31-24, to clinch the #5 seed in the AFC playoffs.

Falcons Get Gifts Before and During Win in Minnesota, Clinch Improbable Playoff Berth

It was a huge surprise to everybody familiar with the game of football that the Atlanta Falcons were even in the playoff discussion going into week 16. The surprises would continue in the season story of this franchise, as things around the League went so well for the Falcons in week 16 action leading up to their game with the Vikings that they had a chance to clinch a playoff berth with a win at the Metrodome. The Falcons entered the contest as 3 point underdogs but they would get almost as much help from the Vikings in the game as they had from around the League over the last 24 hours. Minnesota fumbled 7 times, 4 of which were recovered by Atlanta, and the Falcons only fumble was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown—by Falcons offensive lineman Justin Blalock. The Vikings outgained the Falcons by 128 yards, 350-222, but the 4-0 advantage in turnover margin was all Atlanta needed to get the win, 24-17.

The Falcons opened the game with a 74 yard drive for a TD but the Vikings answered with a 90 yard TD drive to tie it. Minnesota then stopped the Falcons for a 3 and out and had momentum in their favor, but Bernard Berrian made the first of a number of huge mistakes by the Vikings in the game, muffing the punt to give the Falcons the ball at the Viking 22. The Falcons turned it into 7 points to take a 14-7 lead early in the 2nd quarter. The Vikings drove down the field steadily on their next possession. On 1st and 10 from the Atlanta 24, Adrian Peterson carried the ball for a gain of 7 to the Falcons 17 but he then lost the ball and the Falcons recovered. The Vikings got the ball back and moved back into Falcon territory but then Peterson fumbled a handoff on 2nd and 8 from the Atlanta 48 and Chauncey Davis recovered the fumble in Viking territory. The Falcons got a field goal out of it to take a 17-7 lead to halftime.

Minnesota got the ball first in the 2nd half and drove right down the field into the Atlanta red zone, but on 1st and 10 from the 16, Tavaris Jackson tried to scramble and Kindal Moorehead batted the ball away from him. A wild scramble ensued, with Davis eventually recovering the 4th fumble of the game for the Birds all the way back at the 46. But the Falcons couldn’t capitalize on this turnover. However, on the Vikings’ next possession a shotgun snap went over Jackson’s head on 3rd and 9 from the Minnesota 33 and Jackson had to fall on the ball way back at his own 11. The Falcons got the ball in great field position and moved inside the Viking 10. On 2nd and goal from the 5, Matt Ryan took off for the end zone and tried to leap for the goal line. He was hit at the 1 and fumbled into the end zone, but Blalock came up with the ball at the bottom of the pile for a touchdown to put the Falcons up 24-7 with just 2:38 to play in the 3rd quarter.

The Atlanta defense stopped Minnesota on their next possession and the Falcons were in complete control as the Vikings punted on the final play of the 3rd quarter. Harry Douglas returned the ball to the Atlanta 31. At that moment, for all intents and purposes, the game was over, as the Falcons had a 17 point lead and the ball with just 15 minutes to play. But an inexcusable mistake by the Atlanta punt return team gave the Vikings another breath. It turned the game around and nearly led to disaster for the Falcons. On the punt, the Falcons were flagged for having 12 men on the field. The Vikings had a 4th and 4 at their 37, so the 5 yard penalty resulted in a 1st down at the 42. Instead of giving the ball back to Atlanta, the Vikings went down and kicked a field goal to make it a 24-10 game with 11 and a half minutes to play. The Vikings stopped the Falcons for a 3 and out on their next possession, but then Atlanta’s defense stopped Minnesota on downs on their next drive. Again the Falcons looked to have the game under control with the ball in Viking territory and 8 minutes on the clock. But the Vikings forced a 3 and out, got the ball back at their 18, and went 82 yards for a TD in just 3 minutes and 14 seconds to cut the score to 24-17 with 2:44 still on the clock. The Falcons went 3 and out and the Vikings got the ball back at their own 33 with 2:14 on the clock and 1 timeout left. They would have a very good shot at tying this game up. But the Atlanta defense rose to the challenge. Big John Abraham sacked Jackson on 3rd and 10 from the Viking 46 to force a 4th and 16 from the 41 with 56 seconds left. Jackson fired incomplete on 4th down and the Falcons hung on to win it, 24-17, to clinch a playoff berth with their 10th victory of the season.

Wild, Weak West Will be Settled on the Field in Week 17 after Stunning Win by Chargers, Loss by Broncos in Week 16

No matter what happened over the final 15 weeks of the season, Ed Hochuli’s blown call in the Denver-San Diego game in week 2 would still be one of the enduring memories of this regular season. However, events in week 16 would lessen the tangible affect Hochuli’s call would have on the fate of the two teams involved. Going into week 16, the 8-6 Denver Broncos needed only to beat the slumping Buffalo Bills at home to clinch the AFC West Title. They were 6.5 point favorites but if they somehow found a way to lose, they would still clinch the division crown if the 6-8 San Diego Chargers lost to the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay. The Chargers were 3.5 point underdogs going into their game again the Bucs, who were 6-0 at home this year so far. One way or another, it seemed highly unlikely that the AFC West would still be unsettled at day’s end. But it would be.

The Chargers needed a miracle but they would have a chance to take care of their business first. They had won their last 2 games to stave off elimination but that had been against the Raiders and Chiefs. It would be more difficult to get a road win over the 9-5 Bucs but the Chargers got off to a good start, recovering a fumble in their own territory and turning it into 7 points to take the first lead, 7-0. The Bucs got a long kick return and quickly tied the game but the Chargers scored to go back on top early in the 2nd quarter. The Chargers added a field goal to stretch their lead to 17-7 and then the Bucs kicked a field goal to make it a 7 point game again with just 17 seconds left in the half. The Chargers had the ball at their 36 with just 10 seconds remaining in the half, but Philip Rivers found Vincent Jackson for a gain of 25 to the TB 39, and then Nate Kaeding drilled a 57 yard field goal as time expired to send the Chargers to the locker room with a 10 point lead and a ton of momentum.

Tampa came out on fire in the 2nd half and took control of the game. The Bucs took the kickoff and marched 78 yards for a TD while salting away half of the 3rd quarter. They got the ball right back and Jeff Garcia threw a 71 yard bomb to Antonio Bryant to give the Bucs the lead for the first time in the game, 24-20, with 5 minutes to go in the 3rd. You thought that now that the Bucs had the lead they might keep their hold on the game the rest of the way, but on the first play of the 4th quarter Rivers threw a TD pass to Antonio Gates on 3rd and goal from the 5 to put the Chargers back on top, 27-24. On the ensuing TB drive, Garcia was picked off at the Bucs’ 37 but the Chargers couldn’t get anything out of it and had to punt. The Bucs offense stalled on their next possession and punted to try and pin the Chargers deep in their own end, but Darren Sproles took the ball from his own 11 to the Tampa 46 for a return of 43 yards. 3 plays later, Sproles took a short pass to the right and sprinted 32 yards to the end zone to give the Chargers a commanding 34-24 lead with just 7:18 to play. A desperate Tampa offense advanced the ball down the field on their next drive but not at a very quick pace. Finally, on 3rd and 4 from the Charger 48, Garcia’s short pass for Ike Hilliard was picked off by Antoine Cason and returned 59 yards for a score to put it away. The Chargers came away with a huge 41-24 victory to stay alive in the AFC West race. At the same time, the Chargers dealt a critical blow to the playoff hopes of the Bucs, who once controlled their own destiny at 9-3, but after 3 straight losses would need some help in week 17 in order to get into the playoffs.

So as they took the field for warm-ups, the Denver Broncos knew they would have to get it done themselves against the Bills in order to wrap up the division title. The Broncos were coming off a loss at Carolina in week 15, but prior to that game they had won 4 out of 5. The Bills, on the other hand, were coming off of a loss to the Jets in which they gave the game away with a late turnover, losing for the 3rd game in a row and the 7th time in their last 8 games. San Diego’s win at Tampa was surprising, but a Buffalo win at Denver would be an even bigger surprise. But it happened. It happened despite the fact that the Broncos outgained the Bills by 257 yards, 532-275. Early on it looked like everything would go as planned, as the Broncos scored a TD on their opening possession to take the early lead, got a field goal on their 2nd possession to lead 10-0 after 1, and added another field goal on their 3rd possession to make it 13-0 early in the 2nd quarter. The Bills finally got on the board with a field goal midway through the quarter and then the Broncos drove back into Buffalo territory. The game turned when Matt Prater’s 54 yard field goal try after the 2-minute warning came up short, giving the Bills the ball at the Denver 44. They would go 56 yards in 9 plays to score a TD and get back in the game right before halftime, cutting the score to just 13-10.

The Bills got the ball first in the 2nd half and kicked a field goal to tie the game up at 13 a piece. On the Broncos first possession of the 2nd half, Jay Cutler threw complete to Brandon Marshall on 3rd and 10 from the Bronco 29 for a nice gain and a first down into Buffalo territory, but Marshall fumbled the ball and the Bills recovered at their own 42. The Bills went down and kicked another field goal to take their first lead of the game, 16-13, with less than 5 minutes to go in the 3rd. Denver then finally halted the Bills 16-0 scoring run, going 84 yards in 9 plays for a TD to retake the lead, 20-16, and they led by that same score as the final quarter began. But on the next Bills possession, Trent Edwards hit Fred Jackson on a 65 yard bomb to move the ball to the Denver 3, and then Edwards threw a TD on 3rd and goal to give the Bills the lead again, 23-20. The Broncos responded with a field goal that tied the score at 23-23. Matt Prater was now 3 of 4 on the day kicking field goals but all day long he had trouble with kickoffs. Another short kickoff here gave the Bills good field position again and they went 55 yards in 4 plays for a touchdown to take a 30-23 lead. There was still nearly 9 minutes to play in the game and the Broncos marched right down the field and looked on the verge of tying the game again. But on 3rd and 10 from the Buffalo 15, Cutler was intercepted by Kawika Mitchell at the 1. The Bills went 3 and out and Denver got the ball back at their 39 with 3:27 on the clock. The moved into Buffalo territory again but once again the drive stalled at the 15. On 4th and 5 from the 15, Cutler threw incomplete and that was it. The Bills hung on to deal the Broncos a bitter, 30-23 defeat, keeping Denver from winning the title. Amazingly, Ed Hochuli’s blown call would end up being completely meaningless. The 8-7 Denver Broncos would meet the 7-8 San Diego Chargers in San Diego in week 17. The winner would go to the playoffs as the AFC West Division Champion. The loser would go home. Even if San Diego had won their week 2 battle with Denver that Hochuli’s error had allowed the Broncos to win, the week 17 rematch would still have been a win or go home game for the 2 teams.

Lions Slaughtered by Saints in Final Home Game, Lose by 35 to Fall to 0-15

The Lions entered week 16 winless on the season but some felt that their first win might come in their final home game against the Saints, who had been eliminated from the playoffs in overtime at Chicago the week before. New Orleans had nothing to play for, while Detroit was desperate to escape NFL infamy. They were staring the first ever 0-16 season in the face. No team had ever been 0-15 before but that’s what the Lions would be at the end of the day. It felt like 0-15.5 after this one, as the Lions got shredded, diced, sliced, and trashed, 42-7. The Lions’ performance was flat out pitiful. They got more than doubled up on 1st downs, with the Saints achieving 32, 17 more than Detroit’s 15 1st downs. They got more than doubled up in total yards gained. The Lions allowed 532 yards of offense, with New Orleans outgaining the Lions by 277 yards, 532-255. Perhaps worst of all, the Saints went 11 for 12 on 3rd downs in the game and never punted. Drew Brees went 30 for 40, passing for 351 yards, 2 TD’s, and 0 INT. The Saints ran the ball 30 times for 181 yards, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. The Lions threw 2 picks and allowed a pair of sacks. New Orleans even got in a 60 yard kick return. The Saints scored to take a 7-0 lead less than 3 minutes into the game and led 14-0 at the end of the 1st quarter. The Lions got into the end zone to cut it to 14-7 midway through the 2nd quarter, but the Saints scored 2 TD’s in the final 5 minutes of the 1st half to go up 28-7 and put the game away by intermission. Brees fired a pair of TD passes to Marques Colston in the 3rd quarter before the Saints called off the dogs. The Lions lost it by 35 points, 42-7, becoming the first team in NFL history to start a season 0-15. The dream of 0-16 was close enough to taste.

More Week 16 Notes

The action in week 16 was not especially tight. While 8 of the 16 games were decided by 7 points or less, only 2 of 16 games were decided by less than 6 points. 7 of 16 games were decided by double digits, 5 of those were decided by at least 14 points, and 4 were decided by 17 points or more. 2 games were decided by at least 35 points, including 1 game that was decided by 40 points…While the scoring margins were somewhat wide in week 16, it was anything but a chalk week in the NFL. Favorites went just 5-11 ATS and were only 7-9 straight up! Yes, underdogs had a winning record straight up in week 16!...The closest game in week 16 was San Fran’s come from behind 1 point win over the Rams in St. Louis. The Niners won 17-16 for their 3rd victory in their last 4 games. For the Rams it was their 9th consecutive loss…Houston was the largest favorite to fall in week 16, as they lost 27-16 as 7 point favorites at Oakland to see their 4 game win streak come to a crashing halt…On Saturday night, the Ravens bounced back from their heartbreaking loss to the Steelers in week 15 by whipping the Cowboys, 33-24, in the final game in Texas Stadium history. The Ravens were 5 point underdogs going into the game but they sprung the upset to give a major boost to their own playoff chances, improving to 10-5 on the season. The loss dropped Dallas to 9-6 on the season but they would still control their own destiny going into the final week of the regular season…The Washington Redskins were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs in week 16, but that didn’t stop them from dealing a critical blow to the playoff hopes of the rival Philadelphia Eagles. The Skins stopped Reggie Brown 1 yard shy of the end zone on the final play of the game to preserve a 10-3 win, snapping a 3 game losing skid, and snapping the Eagles’ 3 game win streak. The Skins got to 8-7 with the win but were officially eliminated from playoff contention when the Falcons beat Minnesota. Philly fell to 8-6-1 and would need a ton of help in the final week of the season to reach the playoffs…After getting a miracle gift from the Bills to eke out a lucky win in week 15, the Jets were unable to avoid another awful loss in week 16. They were on the road but they were still favored by 3.5 points over the 3-11 Seahawks. Once again wintry weather seemed to cause a complete shutdown of Brett Favre’s ability’s, as he and the Jets were beaten 13-3 for their 3rd sickening defeat in their last 4 games. The Jets had once looked like a lock for the postseason at 8-3 but they were now 9-6 and amazingly they no longer controlled their own destiny heading into the final week of the season…While the Jets stumbled, the Dolphins just kept winning. Miami survived on the road against lowly Kansas City, winning 38-31 to move to 10-5 on the year. With their 4th straight win and 8th in their last 9 games, the Phins took control of their own destiny in the battle for the AFC East crown…The other AFC East team in contention—the New England Patriots—throttled the Arizona Cardinals in week 16 to get to 10-5 on the year. Amid snowy weather in Foxboro, the Patriots ran over the slumping Cards, 47-7, for their 3rd straight victory. Yet the Pats would still need some help in the final week of the season in order to reach the playoffs…The Bears kept themselves alive in the playoff hunt by surviving at home in overtime for the 2nd consecutive week, this time against their arch rivals the Green Bay Packers. On the final Monday Night Football broadcast of the season, the Bears came from behind to defeat the Pack in overtime, 20-17, to go to 9-6 on the season and stay alive in the chase for the NFC North Title or an NFC Wild Card spot. For the Bears it was a 3rd straight win, while the Packers lost their 5th straight game and their 7th in their last 8 games to fall to 5-10 on the year.

Week 17 Review

Lions Achieve Infamy, Lose at Lambeau for First 0-16 Season in NFL History

The Detroit Lions had one last chance to avoid going down in history as quite possibly the worst professional football team ever. Like they did in almost every game this season, the Lions stayed competitive long enough to make you think it was possible, before fading the way they had 15 times before. They fell to the Packers in Green Bay, 31-21, to finish the season winless at 0-16. The Packers were 11 point favorites and early on it looked like they would roll, scoring on a 72 yard run by DeShawn Wynn to go up 7-0, and leading 14-0 after 1. But the Lions got back in the game on a 9 yard TD reception by Calvin Johnson early in the 2nd quarter and the score remained 14-7 for the rest of the half. Johnson’s 2nd TD catch of the game tied the score at 14-14 early in the 3rd quarter, and for a moment there was a sliver of hope. The score was still tied at the start of the 4th quarter, but then the Packers kicked a field goal to retake the lead, 17-14, and moments later they scored a TD to make it a 10 point game with just 8:34 to go. Just like that the chances of Detroit getting off the schnide at the last minute seemed dashed. But the Packers have not been a good team this year and they let the Lions right back in it. Detroit went 80 yards on just 4 plays in barley a minute’s time to cut the deficit back to 3 at 24-21 with 7:32 to play. However, just as quickly as the Lions got back in the game, they fell back out of it. Green Bay started their next drive at their 29 and on the first play of the possession, Aaron Rodgers threw deep down the right side for Donald Driver and he made the catch and went all the way for a 71 yard TD to make it 31-21. Just like that the Lions’ hopes were snuffed out. A number of silly and idiotic penalties on the Lions down the stretch helped to bury them. The Packers intercepted Dan Orvlosky on Detroit’s next possession and then ran the clock out to win it 31-21, sending the Lions to an NFL worst, 0-16. The Packers had actually lost 5 straight and 7 of 8 prior to this game and they finished the season just 6-10, and yet they just seemed to toy with Detroit the way every other team had this season.

Panthers Blow Huge Lead in New Orleans, Claw Back to Win Game, NFC South Title

Though they had actually been a missed field goal away from gaining the #1 seed in the NFC and home field advantage throughout the playoffs a week earlier, the Carolina Panthers needed to win at New Orleans in week 17 or get a loss by the Falcons to the Rams at home in order to win the NFC South. Though NFC South teams had been ridiculously tough at home this year, the Panthers were actually 1 point favorites on the road against the Saints. The game was tight early before the Panthers broke it open and it looked like Carolina would win easily, but the Saints staged a frenzied comeback to give Falcons fans a thrill before blowing it in the end.

The Panthers kicked field goals on each of their first 2 possessions and led 6-0 after the 1st quarter. The Saints got on the board with a FG early in the 2nd and the Panthers answered with a FG to make it 9-3. Carolina intercepted Drew Brees inside New Orleans territory on the next Saints drive and the Panthers turned it into 7 points to take a 16-3 lead with just 3:09 left in the half. On the ensuing kickoff, Skyler Green was stripped of the ball and Dante Wesley returned it 12 yards for a touchdown to make it a 20 point Carolina lead. The Panthers had scored 17 unanswered points and 14 points in the last 6 seconds to take a 23-3 lead on New Orleans at the Super Dome. It didn’t look good for Falcons fans. But the Saints were able to go to halftime with some life, as they drove 80 yards in 9 plays for a touchdown to make it a 13 point game again just before intermission.

The Saints got the ball first in the 3rd quarter but they were unable to do anything with it. Carolina then went 72 yards in 5 plays for a touchdown to make it 30-10 and now there was little hope for Falcons fans. With less than 4 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter, the Panthers ran the ball on 3rd and 4 from the New Orleans 23 and got stopped for no gain. John Kasay came out for a 40 yard FG try that would essentially make it a 4 score lead for Carolina with less than 19 minutes left in the game. But Kasay pushed his kick wide left to leave the door open slightly. The Saints were now chiefly concerned with Drew Brees’ shot at the single season passing yards mark held by Dan Marino. Brees would now catch fire but strangely the Saints offense got an unexpected boost from the legs of veteran running back Deuce McAllister. The 4th quarter began with the Saints down 20 but with a 1st and goal at the 7. On 2nd and goal, Brees threw a 7 yard TD pass to Robert Meachem to cut the lead to 30-17 with 14:48 to play. The Panthers drove into New Orleans territory on their next possession but eventually punted to pin the Saints at their own 11. A false start penalty backed the Saints up to their 6 but they were undeterred. They marched into Carolina territory and into their red zone. On 4th and 2 from the 9, Brees dropped a pass off to Lance Moore and he went into the end zone to make it a 1 score game with 5:33 still to play. The Panthers went 3 and out on their next possession and the Saints took over at the Carolina 45 with just under 4 minutes to play. It took the Saints just 3 plays to get into the end zone again and take their first lead of the game, 31-30, with 3:11 left on the clock. In Atlanta, the Falcons went ahead of the Rams and were trying to hang on to a 31-27 lead while keeping one eye on that score getting ever rosier down in the Big Easy.

Unbelievably, the Saints had scored 21 unanswered points in the 4th quarter to take a 1 point lead. Amazingly, they actually scored too quickly. The Panthers took over at the 18 down 1 with 3:16 on the clock. On the first play, Jake Delhomme dropped back to pass and came under pressure but bought some time and then flung a deep ball up for grabs down the left side. Though anyone not at the game could not see where the ball was headed, anyone familiar with the Carolina Panthers knew exactly who the ball was thrown to and knew exactly what was going to happen. The ball was intended for Steve Smith and he was going to jump up and make the catch between two defenders. Honestly, the chances of Smith not going up and bringing that ball down were about one in a thousand. Smith pulled the ball out of the air and came down at the New Orleans 43 for a gain of 39 and a 1st down. After the two minute warning, Delhomme threw to Muhsin Muhammad for a gain of 8 and a 1st down at the 31. The Saints called their final timeout. The Panthers picked up 1 more first down at the 20 and then ran the clock down to 6 seconds. The Falcons hung on to beat St. Louis to finish the year 11-5 as Kasay came out to try a 37 yard field goal to win the division for Carolina, or if he missed to win it for Atlanta. A false start penalty made it a 42 yard field goal. He had already missed a 41 yarder earlier in the half. If he missed here, the Falcons would be NFC South Champs. He drilled it. The Saints would end up getting 1 final play from their 35 yard line, but instead of throwing a Hail Mary to the end zone to try and get the win, Brees fired a pass of about 20 yards to Lance Moore in an attempt to get the 16 passing yards he needed to set the all-time single season record. The football gods must have been offended by this bush league maneuver, as Brees inexplicably made his worst pass of the day, chucking the ball in the turf about 3 yards in front of Moore for an incompletion that ended the game. The Panthers got the win, 33-31, to finish 12-4, win the NFC South Division Title, clinch the #2 seed in the NFC and a first round bye in the playoffs. The Falcons ended up with the #5 seed and would have to go on the road for a Wild Card Round playoff game the next week.

Bucs Fall to Oakland at Home for 4th Straight Loss to See Playoff Hopes Dashed

When you looked at the final few games that each contending team had left on their schedule during December, the game you thought was the most absolute lock was Tampa’s home game against the Oakland Raiders in week 17. Even with the Bucs riding a 3 game losing streak going into this one and the Raiders coming off an 11 point win over Houston, Tampa was still an 11 point favorite over Oakland. Tampa had once been in the #2 spot in the NFC, in control of their destiny at 9-3, but they had lost their last 3 games and they now needed a win over the Raiders and a Dallas loss to the Eagles later in the day to get into the postseason. All things considered, their odds were still pretty good, as they had what looked like a very easy task at home against the Raiders, and the Eagles were favored at home against the Cowboys. But by the time the Cowboys and Eagles game got underway, the Bucs would have little interest in its outcome. The Buccaneers blew a 10 point 4th quarter lead and lost at home to the lowly Raiders, 31-24, to finish the year on a 4th game losing streak and miss out on the playoffs with a 9-7 record.

Both teams’ offenses struggled to get going early, as the 1st quarter ended without any points being scored. Early in the 2nd quarter, Michael Bush scored on 3rd and 2 from the 4 yard line as the Raiders scored first in this one. Tampa answered with a 10 play, 80 yard drive, capped off by a 9 yard TD scamper by Cadillac Williams that tied it up at 7-7. Late in the half the Tampa defense suffered a serious lapse. After a Tampa punt, the Raiders took over at their own 39 with 1:49 on the clock and 2 timeouts. The Bucs allowed Oakland to go 61 yards in 7 plays for a touchdown, as the Raiders took a 14-7 lead to halftime.

Early in the 3rd quarter, Jeff Garcia hooked up with Michael Clayton on a 58 yard TD pass to tie the score at 14-14. The score remained tied in the 4th quarter, but on the 2nd play of the final period, Matt Bryant booted a 29 yard field goal to put the Bucs on top for the first time in the game, 17-14. It looked like Oakland would retie the game or take the lead back as they drove to the Tampa 26 yard line, but on 1st and 10, JaMarcus Russell was picked off by Sabby Piscitelli at the 5 and he returned it 84 yards to the Raider 11. Moments later, Cadillac went in from 8 yards out to put the Bucs up 24-14 with 11:27 left in the game, and at this point, any rational fan felt sure that the outcome of this one was decided. There was no way that the Raiders were going to come from behind 10 points in the final 11 and a half minutes against the Bucs defense at Raymond James Stadium.

But it turned out that the game was far from over. Actually, the Raiders got back in the game almost immediately. They ran a halfback pass on their next possession, with Michael Bush throwing deep and Will Allen getting flagged for a 43 yard pass interference penalty. That gave Oakland a 1st down at the Tampa 12. On the next play, Russell got the ball to Johnnie Lee Higgins for a 12 yard TD pass that cut the deficit to 24-21 with almost 10 minutes still left to play. The Bucs got the ball back at their 33, and on the first play of their drive Williams went off left tackle for a gain of 28 and a 1st down at the Oakland 39. But Cadillac went down awkwardly at the end of the play and had to be helped off the field with what appeared to be another potentially devastating knee injury. It was a sickening sight for the Bucs and their fans and it might have been the final straw that broke the collective back of this Tampa Bay team. The Bucs gained 6 yards on their next play but gained no yards on 2nd or 3rd down, bringing up 4th and 4 from the Raider 33. The Bucs decided to go for it and Garcia threw incomplete to give Oakland the ball down only 3 with 7:16 on the clock. On the very first play of Oakland’s possession, Bush broke through a gigantic hole and sailed through the once vaunted Tampa defense, taking the ball 67 yards for a touchdown to put Oakland back in front, 28-24. Once again, the aging Tampa defense appeared to wear out late in the game they way they had in each of the last few games. The Bucs began their next possession at the 20 with just over 7 minutes to play, but on the first play of the drive Garcia was picked off at the Oakland 42. The tired Buccaneer defense had to go back out on the field and the reality that Tampa was very likely going to lose this game began to set in. The Raiders drove to Tampa’s 2 yard line, taking 5:46 off the clock before kicking a 25 yard field goal that extended their lead to 7 with just 1 minute and 9 seconds left in the game. The Bucs had no timeouts. They got the ball back at their own 20. On 4th and 10, Garcia got the ball to Antonio Bryant for a gain of 30 and a 1st down at midfield. On 3rd and 5 from the Oakland 45, Garcia took the snap with 16 seconds left and looked to throw deep down field. He stepped up and pumped but then brought the ball back down. While waiting for a receiver to get open Garcia was pummeled from behind by Greyson Gunheim and went down at the 47. The clock ran out and the Bucs had lost, 31-24, to see their playoff hopes crushed and their season end a nightmarish way that would have been unimaginable a month earlier.

Bears Run Out of Luck in Houston, Blow Lead and Chance at Playoffs

After consecutive overtime wins at home, the Bears came into week 17 with a 9-6 record, riding a 3 game winning streak, and needing a win and some help to make the playoffs. They were still alive for either the NFC North Division Title or a Wild Card bid. To win the division they needed to win in Houston and have the Vikings lose to the Giants on the road. If the Vikings beat New York they would clinch the division but the Bears could still make it to the postseason as a Wild Card team if they beat the Texans and got losses by the Bucs and Cowboys. But the Bears couldn’t even take care of their part of the deal. They blew an early 10 point lead and lost 31-24 to be eliminated from playoff contention.

Houston amassed 532 yards of offense, outgaining the Bears by 257 yards, and holding the ball for 15 more minutes. The Bears scored a touchdown and a FG on their first 2 possessions and led 10-0 after the 1st quarter. On their next 2 possession they had the ball at midfield but were unable to add to their lead and the Texans then got on the board on a 43 yard bomb from Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson that made it 10-7 with just under 6 minutes to go in the half. Daniel Manning fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Texans recovered at the Chicago 38. Houston needed 8 plays to get into the end zone and take a 14-10 lead with 1:54 to go in the half. Houston would take that lead into the half and never relinquish it. The Texans score a TD on their first possession of the 2nd half to make the lead 21-10. Chicago answered with a 77 yard TD drive to cut it to 21-17 and that was the score at the start of the 4th quarter. Houston got a field goal to make it a 7 point game again with just under 12 minutes to go. Later in the 4th, Steve Slaton fumbled deep in Chicago territory and the Bears recovered at the 23 but Houston challenged and the play was overturned. The Texans would take about 3 more minutes off the clock and Slaton would score on a 2 yard run to make it 31-17 with just 3:24 to play. The Bears didn’t give up. They went 72 yards in 11 plays over just 1 minute and 53 seconds to cut the lead to 7 again. With just 1:31 left in the game, the Bears had to try an onsides kick but the Texans recovered and ran the clock out. The Bears lost, 31-24, and were eliminated from playoff contention. They finished the season 9-7, while the Texans ended up 8-8 for the 2nd year in a row.

Vikings Come From Behind to Get 1 Point Win Over Giants, Win NFC North

The Minnesota Vikings still had not clinched a playoff spot going into their game at home against the New York Giants in week 17. They needed to win against the resting G-Men or have the Bears lose to the Texans in order to wrap up the NFC North Division Title. Minnesota was down for much of the game and their crown was in doubt but they rallied against New York’s reserves and came away with a 1 point victory to win the division on their own. Early on things looked good for Minnesota. The game was scoreless through the 1st quarter and then the Vikings scored 10 points early in the 2nd to take a 10-0 lead but the Giants kicked 3 field goals to make it a 1 point game at the half. The Giants began the 2nd half without Eli Manning under center but David Carr led them on an 80 yard TD drive to put the Vikings in the hole for the first time in the game, down 16-10. The Vikings couldn’t answer. Tavaris Jackson was picked off in the end zone late in the 3rd quarter and the Giants began the 4th quarter still in the lead by 6. They added a field goal to make it a 2 score game with 11:22 to play. It didn’t look like the Vikings were going to be able to get it done even against New York’s backups. But on Minnesota’s next possession, Jackson burned one of those backups, hitting Bernard Berrian on a 54 yard bomb to cut the score to 19-17 with 9:26 to play. The Giants responded with a clock eating drive and they moved into scoring position again. John Carney lined up for a 5th field goal try, this one from 48 yards out, but this time he missed wide right to leave it a 2 score game and give the Vikings the ball at their 38 with 3 minutes and 17 seconds left on the clock. Jackson led the Vikes on a 9 play drive to get Ryan Longwell in position for a 50 yard field goal to win it. Longwell drilled it with no time left on the clock to give the Vikings a 20-19 and clinch the NFC North Division Title. For the first time since 2004, the Minnesota Vikings were headed to the playoffs. They finished 10-6 for their first season with double digit wins since 2000, the last year they had won a division title. The Giants ended the season 12-4, having lost 3 of their final 4 games, but as the #1 seed in the NFC.

Patriots Shutout Bills Amidst Blustery Conditions, Need Help to Reach Playoffs

The New England Patriots went into week 17 knowing that regardless of what they did against the Bills in Buffalo they were going to need help to get into the postseason. They needed losses by either the Dolphins or the Ravens along with a win over the Bills in order to make it to the playoffs. With those other games not beginning until 4:00 PM, the Pats could fully concentrate on taking care of their end of the deal first. The problem was that 55 MPH winds threatened to turn their game with the Bills into a bit of a crapshoot. But New England wouldn’t allow that to happen. The Pats led 3-0 after 1 thanks to a 33 yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. Bills kicker Ryan Lindell missed from 47 yards early in the 2nd and Gostkowski later missed from 26 yards out after a realignment of the goal posts. The Bills had a 3rd and 5 at the New England 12 with 22 seconds left in the game and no timeouts. They handed the ball off to Fred Jackson up the middle and he was stopped at the 9 after a 3 yard gain. The half ended without the Bills getting off another play. They would not get to try a game tying field goal or throw a ball into the end zone. The Pats took a 3-0 lead into halftime. Early in the 3rd quarter the Patriots sacked Trent Edwards and recovered his fumble at the Buffalo 43. On 4th and 2 from the 25, Matt Cassel scrambled 6 yards to the 19 for a 1st down. On 4th and 5 from the 14, Cassel hit Wes Welker in the left flat and he took it all the way to the 2 before going at out of bounds to give the Pats a 1st and goal. LaMont Jordan scored on the next play to give the Pats a seemingly insurmountable 10-0 lead. Gostkowski booted a 23 yard field goal early in the 4th quarter to make it a 13-0 lead. The Bills were stopped inside New England territory on their final 3 drives, as the Pats preserved the shutout, winning 13-0 to finish with a remarkable 11-5 record. New England had done all they could do, closing the year out with 4 straight victories to win 11 games without Tom Brady. They would now have to wait for help. The Bills were also in need of some help. They finished the year 7-9, having lost 8 of their last 10 games after starting the year off 5-1.

Ravens Dominate Jaguars, Clinch Final Wild Card Spot in AFC

During the early games on Sunday the Oakland Raiders had done a few teams a very big favor by pulling off an upset as a double digit underdog, beating the 11 point favorite Bucs on the road. The New England Patriots and New York Jets were looking for the Jacksonville Jaguars to do the same thing for them on the road against the Baltimore Ravens as 10.5 point underdogs during the later part of the season’s final Sunday. No such luck. The Ravens needed a win to get in and they would get it without much trouble. The Ravens outgained the Jags by 186 yards, 431-245, and had a 4-0 edge in the turnover department as they beat down Jacksonville, 27-7 to clinch a playoff spot. There was a brief moment of time early on when it looked like the Jags might hang around and cause trouble. But the Ravens started the game off looking very much in control. They kicked a field goal on their opening possession to go up 3-0 and Ray Lewis recovered a fumble by David Garrard at the Jacksonville 33 on the Jaguars’ first possession. But Matt Stover missed a 48 yard field goal try to keep the score 3-0, and late in the quarter Garrard found Alvin Pearman down the left side for a 23 yard TD strike to give the Jags a 7-3 lead. However, Baltimore responded with a 10 play, 78 yard drive for a TD to take the lead for good with 10:58 left in the 2nd quarter. The Jags went 3 and out on their next possession and then the Ravens went 77 yards in 8 plays for another TD to make it 17-7 and that was about all she wrote. Ed Reed picked off Garrard at the Baltimore 15 on Jacksonville’s next drive and the Ravens went down and scored again right before half to take a 24-7 lead to intermission. The Jags drove into Raven territory on the first possession of the 2nd half but Garrard threw incomplete on 4th and 4 from the 20 to turn the ball over on downs. The Ravens added a field goal and kept the Jags off the board the rest of the way to win it 27-7 to clinch the final Wild Card spot in the AFC. The Ravens won 9 of their last 11 games to finish 11-5. Jax lost 8 of their final 10 games to finish a very disappointing season at 5-11.

Dolphins Complete Turnaround and win East, Jets Complete Collapse and Miss Playoffs

Going into their game at the Meadowlands late Sunday, the Dolphins knew what was at stake. A win over the Jets would give them an improbable AFC East Division Championship after a 1-15 season. The Jets were in a much odder and more complex position. If they won, their hated rivals the New England Patriots would win the AFC East, but the Jets would still need an unlikely loss by the Baltimore Ravens in order to make the postseason as the final Wild Card team in the AFC. Who knows how the game might have been different if it had been a win and in for both teams. Despite their recent embarrassments, the Jets were 2.5 point favorites in this game. But neither the home field advantage nor Brett Favre were enough to lead New York over Miami in this one, as the QB the Jets threw away for Favre last summer put the final nail in their coffin.

The game was there for the taking for a while. New York drove to the Miami 37 on their opening possession but had to punt. The Jets had the ball at the 50 yard line on their 2nd possession when Favre lobbed a ball up down the left side and got picked off easily at the 21 yard line. Ricky Williams dropped a long bomb from Chad Pennington on a trick play deep in Jets territory on the Dolphins ensuing possession and the 1st quarter ended with no score. Early in the 2nd, the Jets sacked Pennington and recovered his fumble and Favre and the offense turned it into a TD to take an early lead. However, a poor snap on the extra point kept the score 6-0 The Dolphins took a 1 point lead on a 27 yard TD pass from Pennington to Ted Ginn with 2:18 remaining in the half. The Dolphins then took all the momentum on the first play of New York’s next possession when Favre threw a screen pass right to Phillip Merling and the big man picked it and rumbled 25 yards for the score to give the Fins 14 points in 15 seconds. Favre rallied the Jets for a field goal to get the score to 14-9 at the half but he appeared to hurt his shoulder while attempting to make the tackle on the interception. The Dolphins gave the Jets a huge gift on the first possession of the 2nd half, snapping the ball over the punters head inside their own territory. The Jets took over at the Dolphin 28 and 5 plays later they scored to take the lead back. Favre then threw for the 2-pt conversion to render the earlier missed PAT meaningless with the score now 17-14 in favor of the Jets. Miami wasted no time in responding, going 80 yards on just 6 plays for the score to go back on top 21-17. The score was still 21-17 as the Jets drove into Miami territory early in the 4th quarter. An incomplete pass on 3rd and 2 from the Dolphin 43 brought out the punt team and the Fish came up with a blocked punt that swung the game heavily in their favor. They turned it into 3 points to stretch the lead to 24-17. The Jets got the ball backed and were moving steadily down the field but on 1st down from the Miami 29, Favre fired a bullet pass to the left to try and catch the Dolphin defense off balance and it went off of Chansi Stuckey’s hands and into the arms of Andre’ Goodman for his 2nd interception of the game, the 3rd thrown by Favre. With Baltimore rolling in the 4th quarter against Jacksonville, the Jets had virtually no shot at the postseason. The only thing left to be determined was whether the Dolphins would win the game and the division or the Jets would win the game and the Patriots would win the division. With 4:53 left on the clock, the Dolphins took over at their own 28, holding a 7 point lead, and they proceeded to salt away the clock and the Patriots’ playoff hopes. The Fins took the ball to the New York 32 and then punted and down the ball at the 1 yard line with only 17 seconds left. The Jets tried a few Stanford-Cal plays but the Dolphins hung on to win it, 24-17, to take the AFC East Division Title. A year after going 1-15, the Dolphins went 11-5, winning their final 5 games and 9 of their last 10. The New England Patriots became the first team since the 1985 Denver Broncos to miss the postseason despite an 11-5 record. Favre and the Jets, who had once been 8-3, lost 4 of their final 5 games to finish the year 9-7, well out of the playoffs.

Inspired Eagles Defile Cowboys, Soar into Playoffs at Rival’s Expense

When the NFL announced that it was moving the Dallas-Philadelphia game to 4:00 on Sunday in week 17 there were many among us football fans that grumbled. There was a concern that motivational factors could play in Dallas’ favor. This was also an issue when the League moved the Miami-New York Jets game to the late slate, but at least in that case the Jets would still have some shot at the playoffs even if New England won earlier in the day, because they could still hope for a loss by the Ravens. In the case of Philly, there was a very, very good chance that the Eagles would no for certain that they were eliminated from the playoffs before the start of their game with Dallas, who just needed a win to get in regardless of what happened elsewhere. The Tampa Bay Bucs were 11 point favorites at home against the Raiders and if they won their game the Eagles would be eliminated. Even if the Bucs somehow lost, the Eagles might still be eliminated if both 7 point favorite Minnesota and 3 point under dog Chicago won their games. If the Eagles knew they were eliminated going into the game with Dallas—which seemed a very likely possibility—wouldn’t that have to take some of their enthusiasm away, not to mention the crowd’s? If so, wouldn’t that gave an advantage to a Cowboys team that would need only to beat the Eagles to reach the playoffs? The Eagles were favored by 2.5 points and you hoped that they would play with heart no matter what, but it seemed inevitable that they would be eliminated by kickoff. That was before events unfolded they way they did during the early portion of Sunday’s games, with Tampa blowing a 10 point lead to the Raiders and the Bears blowing a 10 point lead to the Texans. By the time of the kickoff at Lincoln Stadium, everyone knew that the Eagles-Cowboys game had become a de facto playoff game and the Philly players and fans were riding an emotional high. The Eagles came out like a team possessed, refusing to let the opportunity they now had go to waste. The Cowboys came out like the poorly built and poorly coached team that they are. To put it bluntly but fairly and honestly, the Cowboys shit themselves and crumbled, showing their true colors. The Eagles jumped on them like Arabs at a stoning, beating them, stomping them, and defiling them on a way to a dominating 44-6 victory that was the worst Dallas defeat of the Jerry Jones era. Somehow, when the day ended, the 9-6-1 Eagles were in, and the Super Bowl favorite, Hollywood, high maintenance, all glitz and no heart Cowboys were out at 9-7.

The Cowboys committed 5 turnovers, committed 5 penalties for 46 yards, allowed 2 defensive touchdowns, and gave up 4 sacks. The Eagles committed only 1 turnover, allowed only 1 sack, did not commit a penalty, and did not allow the Cowboys to reach the end zone. Tony Romo completed just 21of 39 passes for 183 yards and 0 TD’s. He threw 1 interception, lost 2 fumbles, and was sacked 4 times. The game was competitive early on. The game started off on the wrong foot for Dallas, as they sent the opening kickoff out of bounds to give the Eagles the ball at the 40. Quickly the Eagles were inside Dallas territory, but then on 3rd and 8 from the 38, Donovan McNabb hit Brian Westbrook over the middle and Westbrook was hit by Brady James at the 31 and lost control of the ball. Terrance Newman recovered at the Cowboy 25. But Dallas went 3 and out on their first offensive possession and DeSean Jackson returned their punt 21 yards to give the Eagles the ball at their 46. Philly drove back into Dallas territory and this time David Akers kicked a 40 yard field goal to give the Eagles a 3-0 lead. Dallas then responded with what would end up being their best drive of the game, a 15 play drive from their own 20 to the Eagles red zone. They converted 3rd downs into 1st downs 3 times on the drive, but then on 3rd and 1 from the 15, Romo threw a quick pass to the left flat to Roy Williams and he was hit and dropped for a loss of 4. They ended up settling for a 37 yard FG by Nick Folk that tied the score. It was a 3-3 game at the end of 1.

On the 2nd play of the 2nd quarter, with the Eagles facing a 3rd and 7 from their own 35, McNabb dropped a pass off to Correll Buckhalter and he skirted 59 yards all the way to the Dallas 6. After Westbrook ran the ball down to the 1, McNabb was stopped short of the goal line on 2nd down, and then on 3rd and goal from the 1 he went in on a sneak to put the Eagles ahead 10-3. The two teams traded punts and then the Eagles stopped Dallas for a 2nd straight 3 and out and got the ball back at their 29 with 7:22 left in the half. The Eagles were winning by 7 but up to this point the game had been highly competitive as expected. But from here on out the Eagles would basically dominate. I started when McNabb got rolling on this possession. On 3rd and 8 from the Eagle 31, McNabb found Kevin Curtis for a gain of 15 and a 1st down. The Eagles moved into Dallas territory, and then on 3rd and 9 from the Cowboy 37, McNabb threw deep down the right sideline for Jackson who made the catch and went out of bounds at the 3 for a gain of 34. After 2 failed runs, McNabb dropped back on 3rd and goal from the 4 and threw to Buckhalter in the left flat for a TD to give the Eagles a commanding 17-3 lead with just 2 minutes and 3 seconds left in the half. The Cowboys wanted to get some points on the board before half to curb some of Philly’s momentum and they moved the ball into Eagle territory. With 1:13 left in the half, Romo took the shotgun snap on 2nd and 5 from the Philly 48 and lobbed a soft pass down the left sideline for Roy Williams, but Williams was confused on the route and kept going. Sheldon Brown stopped and made the easiest interception of his career at the 35 and returned it 23 yards to give the Eagles the ball at the Dallas 42 with 1:04 on the clock. After using their 2nd timeout, the Eagles faced a 3rd and 9 from the 41 and McNabb found Reggie Brown over the middle and hit him in stride crossing from right to left for a nice gain. As Brown was going out of bounds at the 28 after a gain of 13, Pac Man Jones grabbed him by the horse collar and slung him to the ground a few yards out of bounds for a personal foul penalty that moved the ball to the 14. The Eagles lost a few yards on their next play and had to use up their final timeout. On 3rd and 9 from the 13 with 23 seconds left, McNabb threw the ball to Jackson in the end zone and Newman never turned around to play the ball and was called for an obvious pass interference penalty that gave the Eagles 1st and goal at the 1 with 15 seconds left. They had no timeouts left, so McNabb threw a 1 yard TD pass to Brent Celek to make it a 24-3 lead. The Linc was going crazy. But it would get crazier in a moment. The Eagles didn’t want to let the Cowboys get back in it with a kick return for a TD and that was the only way they were going to be able to do anything with only 13 seconds left before halftime. So Akers kicked the ball short. Jones fielded the kick at the 20 and advanced up field to the 31, but as he was fighting for a meaningless extra yard, Jones was stripped of the ball by Quintin Demps and Omar Gaither recovered the ball at the 31 with 3 seconds left on the clock. David Akers came on to try a 50 yard field goal. Twice this season, the Eagles had tried field goals with just seconds remaining in the half, attempting to extend leads, and gotten them blocked and returned for touchdowns to let opponents back in the game. This time Akers boomed it through to make it 24 unanswered points by the Eagles in the 2nd quarter, 17 of them in the last 2 minutes and 3 seconds, and Philly went to the locker room with a 27-3 lead. Only a monumental collapse by the Eagles and comeback by the Cowboys could save Dallas and ruin Philly.

But it was Dallas that kept monumentally collapsing. The Cowboys got the ball first in the 2nd half and they quickly moved down field to try and get something started. On the big play of the drive, Romo threw across the field laterally to Jason Witten and then Witten threw deep for Terrell Owens and he made the catch for a 42 yard gain down to the 14. But after a false start and an incomplete pass, Romo dropped back on 2nd and 15 from the 19 yard line and Brian Dawkins got to him at the 25 and raked the ball from him. Chris Clemons scooped up the ball at the 27 and the big man ran like a track star the other way, 73 yards for a touchdown to quickly put an end to all miracle comeback thoughts. Just moments into the 3rd quarter it was 34-3 Philly. The Cowboys got the ball back and moved quickly down the field once again. On 3rd and 1 from the Philly 47, Romo threw to Owens for 35 yards and a 1st down at the 12. On the next play, Romo threw short to the left to Marion Barber and he made the catch and ran inside the 5 and appeared headed for the left pylon. But Dawkins ripped the ball out as Barber ran towards the corner and Joselio Hanson picked up the ball at the 4 and shot down the sideline the other way for a 96 yard fumble return for a touchdown. It was starting to look like the Cowboys romp over the Bills in Super Bowl XXVII, only Hanson was about 150 pounds less than Leon Lett and he actually made it to the end zone without having the ball knocked away from him. There weren’t any Don Beebe's on this Cowboys team anyway. There were still 8 minutes and 11 seconds remaining in the 3rd quarter and the score was 41-3 Philly. The Cowboys had to keep playing and the Eagles kept hurting them. On the ensuing Dallas possession, Romo stepped back to throw on 2nd and 10 from the Dallas 29 and Chris Clemons got to him for another sack and Romo lost the ball again. Trevor Laws recovered at the Dallas 33 yard line. This time the Eagles couldn’t get into the end zone but Akers added a 41 yard field goal to make it 44-3 with 6 minutes and 4 seconds to go in the 3rd quarter. Over an 11 minute stretch of play from the 2:03 mark of the 2nd quarter to the 6:04 mark of the 3rd quarter the Cowboys got outscored 34-0, turned the ball over on 5 consecutive possessions, allowed 2 to be returned for touchdowns, and the other 3 were all recovered in or returned to Dallas territory. The Cowboys went 3 and out on their next possession but at least they didn’t turn the ball over. The 3rd quarter ended with the game having turned into a historically embarrassing route, one that the Eagles were on the good side of, 44-3.

On the first play of the 4th quarter, Akers missed a 40 yard field goal to keep it a 41 point game. The Cowboys went 3 and out on their next possession and then finally on their next possession they drove the ball into Philly territory and appeared on the verge of scoring. They had a 1st and 10 at the 19, but a sack and then an intentional grounding penalty on the next 2 plays backed them way the hell up. They wound up with a 4th and 15 and decided to kick a 42 yard field goal just for the hell of it. Folk made it to end a string of 41 unanswered points by the Eagles. Philly called off the dogs the rest of the way and won it by a final score of 44-6 to finish the year 9-6-1 and in the playoffs as the 6th and final seed in the NFC. The Eagles had once been 5-5-1 and written off by just about everyone following the tie in Cincinnati, the post game press conference debacle, and the benching of McNabb during the blowout in Baltimore. It looked like both Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb were likely at the end of their time in Philadelphia. But the Eagles finished the season winning 4 of their last 5 games and got a lot of help to make the playoffs. The Cowboys imploded down the stretch, losing 3 of their final 4 games to finish 9-7 and home for the playoffs.

One Final Battle: Chargers Settled Unfinished Business with Broncos, Win AFC West

By the time Sunday evening rolled around in week 17 and the final game of the regular season got underway there was only one thing left to be determined. Either the Denver Broncos would win as a 7 point underdog on the road at San Diego to finish 9-7 and win the AFC West, or the Chargers would take care of business at home, negate the Ed Hochuli boner, and win the AFC West at 8-8 to finish off an improbable run to the playoffs. This series has been heated in recent times and the games have often been competitive and exciting. This one turned out to be as one sided as you might have expected it to be when you looked at the schedule back in August. The Chargers ran around, through, and over the Broncos to clinch the division, doubling up their rivals, 52-21 in a performance much more like what was expected of them coming into the season.

The Chargers scored on their opening possession, with Nate Kaeding kicking a 28 yard field goal to give San Diego a 3-0 lead. The Broncos responded by marching 73 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown on their first possession. Tatum Bell broke free for a 26 yard TD run on 3rd and 1 to give the Broncos the lead but Matt Prater’s troubles continued, as he kicked the extra point off the upright and no good to leave the score 6-3. San Diego finished off their second drive, going 73 yards in 8 plays for a touchdown to retake the lead, 10-6. They would take that lead into the 2nd quarter and they would remain in the lead for the rest of the night.

The Chargers started pulling away in the 2nd quarter. They went 72 yards in 8 plays for a touchdown and then went on a 9 play, 58 yard drive for a TD to take a 24-6 lead with 3 minutes and 32 seconds left in the half. Denver got the ball back and began moving down the field, desperate to get some points on the board before halftime to get back in the game. But on 2nd and 10 from the 14 yard line with 1:13 on the clock, Jay Cutler threw into the end zone for Brandon Marshall and was picked off by Paul Oliver. The Chargers would go to the locker room with their 18 point lead intact.

A late score would have been very big for the Broncos because they would get the ball first in the 3rd quarter. And they would score on their opening drive of the 2nd half, going 73 yards in just 5 plays, with Bell racing 37 yards for the TD to cut the score to 24-13. That got the Broncos back in it momentarily. But the Chargers answered immediately, going 69 yards in 5 plays for a TD to make it an 18 point game again. On the ensuing Denver possession, Cutler dropped back to throw on 1st down from the Bronco 18 and his short pass was picked off by Luis Castillo at the line of scrimmage and returned to the 14. LaDainian Tomlinson scored on a 14 yard run on the next play to put the game out of reach. Denver’s next possession ended at the San Diego 12 when Cutler threw incomplete on 4th and 5. The Chargers took a 38-13 lead into the 4th quarter.

Denver scored on a 7 play, 75 yard drive early in the 4th quarter and then got a 2-pt conversion to cut the score to 38-21 with 13:01 left in the game. But Denver couldn’t stop the Chargers offense. San Diego went 66 yards in 6 plays for a TD to make it 45-21. The Broncos moved to the San Diego 30 on their next possession, but on 4th and 5, Cutler threw incomplete to turn it over on downs. The Chargers went on an 11 play, 70 yard drive to put the finishing touches on the victory. San Diego went on to win it, 52-21. Both teams finished 8-8 but the Chargers had the tiebreaker and won the AFC West Title. They looked all but mathematically eliminated at 4-8 but they won their final 4 games, and Denver lost their last 3 games. Denver would be home for the playoffs again and the Chargers would once again be in the playoffs.

More Week 17 Notes

Week 17 was perhaps the most exciting week of the entire season just because there was so much riding on almost every game from start to finish. Week 17 was a very typical week in terms of competitiveness with a handful of blowouts, a handful of very tight games, and a handful of games that fell somewhere in between. 4 of the 16 games in week 17 were decided by 4 points or less, and 7 of the 16 games were decided by 7 points or less. The other 9 games were all decided by double digits and there were 5 games that were decided by 20 points or more. 2 games were decided by at least 31 points, including 1 game that was decided by 38 points…After a week 16 that was all about underdogs, favorites ruled the day in week 17 going 10-6 ATS and a dominant 13-3 straight up…The Atlanta Falcons struggled against the Rams at home in week 17 but ended up winning, 31-27, to finish the season 11-5. John Kasay’s game winning field goal for the Panthers kept the Falcons from winning the NFC South title. Instead of having a first round bye and a home game in the divisional round, the Falcons will have to travel to Arizona to play in the wild card round. But for the Falcons anything that happens from here on out is beyond gravy. They won their final 3 games and 7 of their last 9 to reach the 11 win mark for just the 4th time in team history. Meanwhile, the Rams lost their final 10 games to finish 2-14 on the season. If you get past the fact that Detroit went 0-16 and St. Louis won 2 games, there could be an argument made that the Rams were actually the worst team in the NFL this season…Easily the worst matchup of week 17 was the game between the Chiefs and Bengals in Cincinnati. The Bengals won 16-6 for their 3rd straight victory to end the season 4-11-1. After going 0-8 in the first half of the season, the Bengals were actually over .500 in the second half of the year, going 4-3-1. For the Chiefs it was their 4th loss in a row and their 11th in their last 12 games. They ended a horrific campaign with a 2-14 record…The Colts and Titans game in Tennessee ended up being completely meaningless but Indy stayed hot, shutting out the Titans, 23-0. After losing decisively at Tennessee in week 8 the Colts were 3-4 and there was talk that their run might be coming to a close. Instead, the Colts closed the year out by winning their final 9 games to finish the season 12-4, their 6th straight season winning at least 12 games…Another meaningless game in week 17 was the Steelers and Browns grudge match at Heinz Field. It almost became very meaningful for all the wrong reasons, as Big Ben Roethlisberger suffered a concussion and had to be carted off the field. He is expected to be okay to play when needed in the divisional round and the Steelers went ahead and dominated the Browns without Big Ben, shutting Cleveland out, 31-0...There were 3 different shutouts in week 17…The San Francisco 49ers certainly ended the year playing better than they were at the start and in the process they won Mike Singletary the head coaching job. In week 17, the Niners won a back and forth battle over the Red Skins at home, 27-24 to finish the year 7-9. The Niners went 5-4 under Singletary and won 4 of their last 5 games. The Skins finished the season 8-8, going 2-6 in their final 8 games after starting the year 6-2…After a few weeks of embarrassingly bad play, the Arizona Cardinals ended the year on a good note, beating the Seahawks 34-21 at home to finish 9-7 for their first winning season since 1998. The Seahawks went 4-12 in Mike Holmgren’s final season.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The NFL Blog: Power Rankings (After Week 17)

Power Rankings After Week 17

1. New York Giants 12-4 (1st)
2. Tennessee 13-3 (2nd)
3. Pittsburgh 12-4 (3rd)
4. Indianapolis 12-4 (4th)
5. Baltimore 11-5 (5th)
6. Carolina 12-4 (6th)
7. Atlanta 11-5 (7th)
8. New England 11-5 (8th)

-Previous week’s ranking in parenthesis;

Out: none;

Explanation: For the first time all year there were no changes to my top 8 in the final power rankings of the season. It’s not too surprising since many of the top teams have everything sewed up and are resting starters in week 17. This was actually only the 3rd time all year that no team fell out of my top 8. For the 2nd week in a row and the 5th time in the last 6 weeks, the New York Football Giants held the top spot in my rankings. The G-Men finish the year as my #1 team despite blowing a lead and losing by a point at home to the Vikings to finish the year 12-4. The Giants were ranked 13th in my preseason rankings but they broke into my week 2 power rankings at number 7 and they were in my top 8 for the final 16 rankings. They were ranked in my top 5 in the final 13 rankings and in my top 2 in the final 10 rankings. The team that held the top spot in my rankings for the most weeks this year was the Tennessee Titans, and they finished 2nd in my power rankings after losing to the Colts in week 17 to finish 13-3. Tennessee got beat 23-0 in their final game but they had nothing left to play for. The Titans were ranked 21st in my preseason rankings but they broke into my top 8 for good at #1 in week 4 and they spent 8 weeks of the season in the top spot in my rankings. Tennessee was ranked in my top 3 for the final 13 weeks. The Pittsburgh Steelers held the top spot in my rankings for 1 week this year but they finished the season in the #3 spot after blanking the Browns 31-0 to end the year 12-4. The Steelers were ranked 11th in my preseason rankings but they broke into my top 8 at number 4 in week 1. They were in my top 8 in 16 of the 17 rankings, including each of the last 13 weeks. Pittsburgh was ranked in my top 5 in the final 12 rankings and in my top 4 in the final 9 rankings. They were ranked in my top 3 in each of the 5 final rankings. The Indianapolis Colts were again 4th in my rankings this week after they beat Tennessee 23-0 in the final week of the season to finish the year 12-4. The Colts were ranked 3rd in my preseason rankings but they fell out of my top 8 twice during the season. The Colts were in my top 8 in 13 of the 18 rankings, including the last 8. The Colts were 4th in my final 4 rankings. At number 5 in my final rankings are the Baltimore Ravens, who whipped the Jaguars, 27-7, at home in week 17 to finish the year 11-5. The Ravens were ranked 18th in my preseason rankings and they didn’t break into my top 8 until week 9 when they debuted at #7. However, they would be in my rankings for good, as they were in my top 8 for the final 9 weeks. The Ravens were 5th in my final 4 rankings. The Carolina Panthers ended the year in the #6 spot in my rankings after eking out a 2 point win on the road over the Saints to finish the season 12-4. The Panthers were ranked 19th in my preseason rankings and they didn’t break into my top 8 until week 5 when they debuted at #6. The Panthers fell out of my top 8 twice during the season but they were in 10 of my final 13 rankings. Carolina was ranked 6th in my final 4 rankings. The team in the #7 slot in my final power rankings is the only NFL team near and dear to my heart, the Atlanta Falcons. I can’t say that I was completely unaffected by personal bias when it comes to ranking the Atlanta Falcons. I can absolutely say that I did not overrate the Falcons based on personal attachment, but I may have underrated them based on my personal attachment. The Falcons were ranked 32nd—dead last—in my preseason rankings and they did not break into my top 8 until the 2nd to last week of the season when they debuted at #7. The Falcons were ranked 7th in each my final 2 power rankings. The New England Patriots held the last spot in my final power rankings after they shutout the Bills on the road to finish the season 11-5. The Pats were ranked 2nd in my preseason rankings but they fell out of my top 8 in week 1 after Tom Brady went down with a season ending knee injury. They got back in my top 8 in week 8 but they fell out a week later and didn’t get back to the top 8 until week 16. The Patriots were 8th in each of my final 2 power rankings. Of the teams ranked in the top 8 in my preseason rankings, only 2 (New England and Indianapolis) were in my final top 8 of the year and no team remained in my top 8 all the way through from preseason to the end of the regular season. The Titans spent the most weeks at #1 in my rankings (8) and they had the longest continuous stay in my top 8 (final 13 rankings). The Steelers spent the most weeks in my top 8 (16).

The NFL Blog: Power Rankings (After Week 16)

Power Rankings After Week 16

1. New York Giants 12-3 (2nd)
2. Tennessee 13-2 (3rd)
3. Pittsburgh 11-4 (1st)
4. Indianapolis 11-4 (4th)
5. Baltimore 10-5 (5th)
6. Carolina 11-4 (6th)
7. Atlanta 10-5 (NR)
8. New England 10-5 (NR)

-Previous week’s ranking in parenthesis;

Out: Philadelphia (7th), Dallas (8th);

Explanation: No time for explanation this week. I’m going to do one final power ranking after this week.

The NFL Blog: Week 17 Betting Lines

Last Week: Vs. Spread (7-9); Straight Up (7-9)
Season: Vs. Spread (113-117-10); Straight Up (149-88-1)

Week 16 Review: Last week wasn’t too bad for me against the spread as I was 7-9, but I was also just 7-9 straight up.

Week 17 Preview: This is the final week of the season and I’m working quickly.

Sunday’s Early Games

New England (-5.5) @ Buffalo
Pick: Patriots cover.
Comment: Rough weather in Buffalo.

Kansas City (+3) @ Cincinnati
Pick: Bengals cover.
Comment: What an awful game.

Detroit (+11) @ Green Bay
Pick: Packers cover.
Comment: Hard luck Packers should send Lions to first 0-16 season.

Chicago (+3) @ Houston
Pick: Texans cover.
Comment: Bears have shot at the playoffs but the Texans are tough at home.

Tennessee (-3) @ Indianapolis
Pick: Titans cover.
Comment: Let’s see what VY can do.

New York Giants (+7) @ Minnesota
Pick: Vikings win but Giants beat the spread.
Comment: Even with their starters rested I don’t see the Giants losing by more than 7.

Carolina (-1) @ New Orleans
Pick: Saints pull off the upset.
Comment: Go Saints!

Cleveland (+11) @ Pittsburgh
Pick: Steelers cover.
Comment: Steelers always crush the Browns

Oakland (+11) @ Tampa Bay
Pick: Bucs cover.
Comment: This should be an easy win for Tampa.

St. Louis (+14) @ Atlanta
Pick: Falcons cover.
Comment: Here’s hoping the Falcons end the season in style.

Sunday’s Late Games

Jacksonville (+10) @ Baltimore
Pick: Ravens cover.
Comment: Ravens should crush the Jags.

Washington (+3) @ San Francisco
Pick: Niners cover.
Comment: The Niners should finish the season strong.

Seattle (+7) @ Arizona
Pick: Cards cover.
Comment: The Cards need a good game to get back on track heading into the playoffs.

Miami (+3) @ New York Jets
Pick: Jets cover.
Comment: I think Favre goes out with a win but no playoffs.

Dallas (+1) @ Philadelphia
Pick: Eagles cover.
Comment: I think Philly ends Big D’s season.

Sunday Night’s Game

Denver (+9) @ San Diego
Pick: Chargers win but Broncos beat the spread.
Comment: I think the Chargers will win it but I don’t think it’ll be easy.