The Fine Fifteen
1. New York Giants (9-1). Terrific win over one of the league's hottest teams, and it's the third-straight 200-yard-plus running game for the Jints. That also makes it four-straight over playoff contenders (Pittsburgh, Dallas, Philly, Baltimore), and you'd think that just about clinches home field through the playoffs. But no. As if the final six games weren't going to be tough enough, four come on the road: at Arizona, at Washington, Philadelphia, at Dallas, Carolina, at Minnesota.
2. Tennessee (10-0). OK. I've learned my lesson. No more picking against the Titans. Tricky stretch coming up. The Jets at home on Sunday, followed four days later with a trip to Detroit. By the way, the Elias Sports Bureau confirms that an 11-0 team has never faced an 0-11 team in NFL history. That's what Tennessee and Detroit are headed for on Thanksgiving Day.
3. Indianapolis (6-4). This just in: Colts will vote Sage Rosenfels a playoff share if Indy plays in January.
4. Pittsburgh (7-3). Willie Parker, with a shoulder needing surgery, gutted out an excellent game. There's something about putting on the black and gold that turns good backs into heroic ones. Twenty-five carries, 115 rushing yards with that shoulder ... really, really impressive.
5. Baltimore (6-4). I'm not killing the Ravens for getting their lunches handed to them by the best team in football.
6. New York Jets (7-3). Every time Leon Washington touches the ball, I lean forward in my seat.
7. New England (6-4). Some clarity on the Matt Cassel free-agency situation: The Patriots have until Feb. 19 to determine whether to place the franchise tag on Cassel, whose contract expires after the season. That gives them three months from today to decide.
Write this down: The only way they'll tag Cassel is if Tom Brady's knee rehab takes a major turn for the worse, to the point the Pats don't feel confident Brady will be ready to start the 2009 season. That's it. Because the NFLPA won't allow teams to franchise players if they have no intention of keeping them, the Patriots won't be able to franchise Cassel if they intend to trade him. So, barring a Brady setback, expect Cassel to be a free-agent and end up making $9 million a year with (pick one) Minnesota, Detroit, San Francisco, St. Louis or whatever team Josh McDaniels coaches in 2009, should he be fortunate enough to get a head-coaching job.
8. Tampa Bay (7-3). I agree with Jon Gruden. That's one heck of a defense -- and an under-appreciated one -- in Tampa.
9. Carolina (8-2). Quietest 8-2 team in recent NFL history. And perhaps the most suspect.
10. Arizona (7-3). Kurt Warner lengthens his MVP lead. If he wins it, he's got to buy something very nice for Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald (23 catches, 337 yards at Seattle on Sunday).
11. Dallas (6-4). Tony Romo's presence, I'm convinced, helped the Dallas defense in Washington last night, too. The D seemed more inspired, playing like it knew it had a real chance. And let's not forget Terrence Newman's return from a groin injury. I see the Cowboys beating the Niners and Seahawks, and being 8-4 entering a hellish December.
12. Miami (6-4). The Miami Dolphins are hosting the New England Patriots on Sunday, and the winner will either be tied with the Jets for the AFC East lead or have a firm hold on a wild-card berth. Ladies and gentlemen, these are the Miami Dolphins we're talking about. "I don't tell my guys very often,'' Tony Sparano said after Sunday's win over Oakland, "but I'm really proud of them.'' Well, he should be.
13. Washington (6-4). Eight-straight quarters of falling to earth for Jason Campbell.
14. Denver (6-4). Two-straight impressive wins on the road, at Cleveland and Atlanta, put the Broncos back in the postseason mix. "Five defensive starters out,'' Mike Shanahan said from the Denver charter 90 minutes after the game, "and five running backs hurt. Pretty impressive that these guys come back and play this well.''
15. Atlanta (6-4). You know how fine the line is between 7-3 and 6-4? And how fine the line is between Nos. 15 and 11 in this illustrious ranking of teams? A dropped touchdown pass by Roddy White in the end zone. I mean, a dropped touchdown pass right in his hands.
Quote of the Week I
"We're not idiots. We can do the math.''
Quote of the Week II
"Ty Law now is gonna back off Randy Moss and give him a free release. I don't know about that one.''
Law had Moss, split wide right, in coverage. Law backed off all the way back near the goal line, didn't bump Moss in the five-yard bump zone like he'd been doing all game, and Moss boxed him out near the goal line to make a great touchdown catch, sending the game to overtime. As Collinsworth presaged, it was a poor decision by the Jets. (Even if Law had played bump with Moss, I bet Cassel would have thrown a fade to Moss in the corner of the end zone, and who knows, he could have caught a jump ball for the tying touchdown too. But I'm with Collinsworth. If the bump slows Moss down long enough to let the rush get to Cassel, it would have been worth it.)
Now, I work with Collinsworth, as you may know. And you could clearly take this as me just supporting my guy. But I can assure it's more than that. Collinsworth had a very good game Thursday night. Did you catch him saying near halftime that the Jets might be smart to take a better cover man, Law, and put him head-up on Jabar Gaffney instead of using Dwight Lowery there, because as long as the Jets were going to keep a safety in place to double Moss downfield, why not use the better cover-corner, Law, in single-coverage, even if it's against a lesser receiver? And that's what the Jets did at the start of the third quarter. Collinsworth does stuff like this two or three times in most games, and Thursday was a classic example.
Quote of the Week III
"That's why I came back.''
The more I get to know players, the more I never, ever wonder why they want to keep playing after the point when most people think they should retire. The game is too much fun. The highs are too exhilarating. And if Favre comes out in January and says, "I think I want to play in 2009,'' I will be the least-surprised person in America.