NFL heading for a wild finish as teams jockey for playoff position
Breaking down the wild-card races in the AFC and the NFC
Is Tony Romo turning into the NFL's version of A-Rod in the clutch?
The Fine 15, MVP Watch, holiday book reviews and an update on Dr. Z
NEW YORK -- Did someone say Miracle of the Ketchup Bottle?
We'll get to the other news of the weekend -- the sudden falling to the earth of the New Jersey teams, a brilliant piece of coaching by the Philadelphia defensive coordinator, the Vikings' tenuous renaissance, the greatest season for offensive rookies I remember, and the bravest performance of the weekend by an amazing football player -- but we'll start in Pittsburgh.
Actually, we'll start with the two wild-card races, just to get you warmed up. With three games to play (four for Carolina and Tampa Bay), there's more clarity in the AFC than in the NFC.
AFC (Three to qualify: One AFC East champion, two wild cards)
Indianapolis: 9-4 overall (8-2 in AFC)
How I see it: The Colts will not lose anymore, and they have Detroit and Jacksonville the next two weeks; they're in. ... The Ravens could catch Pittsburgh (10-3), which is at Baltimore and Tennessee in the next two weeks. ... If Baltimore wins the North, the Steelers win the other wild card by virtue of a gimme Cleveland game in Week 17. ... The AFC East is going to have two heartbroken teams. Only the division winner will make the playoffs. Flip a coin: I'll take the team playing the best defense: Miami. Incredible. Miami with a home playoff game.
NFC (Two wild cards to qualify)
Carolina: 9-3 overall (6-3 in NFC)
How I see it: I like Carolina, but I don't trust the Panthers now as much as I do Atlanta, which is odd to say with the Falcons coming off a loss in New Orleans. ... The Panthers may have to win two of four against a tough slate to make it. ... I also don't see how Dallas recovers from that absurd loss in Pittsburgh. ... I see Philadelphia winning out (Cleveland, at Washington, winner-take-all with Dallas at home) and Atlanta edging Carolina on a tiebreaker for the other playoff spot.
Now for the subplots of the weekend:
Tony Romo gets the loss in Pittsburgh. Romo and tight end Jason Witten both said the losing interception-returned-for-a-touchdown by DeShea Townsend was their fault. Witten looked like he slipped and read the route the wrong way coming out of his break on a slippery Heinz Field. Whatever. That ball, like so many others on the day by Romo, was thrown way off course, and it was the capper on the Steelers' 17-0 run in the final eight minutes to win.
There's no way Witten, had he broke right, would have been in position to catch this ball. So I put the blame on Romo. I assume it has to be part pinky, part weather, but this is only going to add to the perception Romo's not a big-game quarterback -- 19-of-36, 210 yards, one touchdown, three picks, one fumble -- though one of the picks was more Terrell Owens' laziness than a poor throw.
I don't buy that perception about Romo, by the way; I'm simply making the point that if the Cowboys don't make the playoffs, the thread of two straight playoff-opening losses and this horrible interception will begin to write the book on Romo. My other point is that Romo deserves the criticism, but let's let his career breathe before we label him some sort of A-Rod in the clutch.
This game will be dissected for days in Dallas and celebrated like few other Steelers wins ever -- and I mean that, because in neo-natal units across western Pennsylvania, nurses coo babies to sleep by cursing the Cowboys. But the Cowboys played it a little too safe for me in the fourth quarter.
With a 13-3 lead and 9:28 to play, on third-and-five from the Dallas 19, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett started to bleed the clock -- as it turned out, too soon. Romo handed to Tashard Choice, who was stopped for a loss of one. Within two minutes, the Steelers had a field goal, and Dallas went three-and-out, and Pittsburgh drove 67 yards for a touchdown, and then Romo made his fateful throw to Townsend.
Moral of the story: A 10-point leads on the road shouldn't be sat on with 10 minutes left. That didn't lose Dallas the game, certainly. But it didn't help.
Wade Phillips sharpens résumé skills. What? Too early for this one? OK. We'll give it a week or two. Am I blaming him? Not at all. But it's not me Phillips has to worry about.
Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson and his men had a brilliant day -- and highlighted a big problem for the Giants. Maybe I wouldn't be writing this if Domenik Hixon catches the simplest deep ball he's ever had thrown to him in a football game, the sure touchdown on the first play of the second quarter. But the Eagles played a totally different defensive game with Plaxico Burress sidelined for New York, and it bodes ill for the Giants against tough defenses down the stretch (Dallas, Carolina, Minnesota).
When the Giants and Eagles played the first time this year -- a 36-31 Giant win four weeks ago -- you could see how Johnson consistently kept a safety deep, often to Burress' side of the field. "We had real matchup problems with Plaxico,'' Johnson told me after the Eagles' 20-14 win Sunday. "We always have. We had to double him a lot, and he was such a dominant force in the red zone.''
Burress had seven inches on the three Eagle corners he faced in the first game. Hixon is four inches taller than Sheldon Brown, Asante Samuel or Lito Sheppard, but he's a beanpole, and you can jostle him and be physical with him. Burress not only had a Yao-versus-Kobe edge, but he knew how to box out in the old Michael Irvin way -- you know, without getting caught by the officials.
The other thing Burress' absence did to this game was allow the Eagles to be much more physical against the running game. You could see it right from the start. Brian Dawkins wrestled Kevin Boss like he was trying to impress Vince McMahon on one of the game's first snaps, a sign the Eagles were going to try to beat up the Giants. "No question about it,'' Johnson said. "We were going to be the more physical team today.'' The safety being in the box was hugely helpful.
First meeting: The Giants rushed for 219 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per rush. Second meeting: The Giants rushed for 88 yards, 3.7 per carry. "Our run lanes were so much better this time, and we didn't let Jacobs get out on the edge,'' Johnson said.
Storm clouds gather over the Meadowlands. The Jets are this week's version of the cheap suit. Folded. Wrinkled. Fraudulent. They're 0-3 on the West Coast (San Diego, Oakland, San Francisco, with a game at Seattle in two weeks -- and let's not laugh at Seattle, the way the Seahawks played New England). It's going to be a tough pill for Woody Johnson to swallow after spending more money in football than any other owner in the offseason, to fall from 8-3 to out of the playoffs if they don't make it.
And the Giants, the other team at the Meadowlands ... No Burress. Maybe no Brandon Jacobs; Tiki Barber reported last night he may miss Sunday night's showdown in Dallas with a knee injury. And a weakened passing game. Maybe they've lost too many pieces, but I still think they're the best team in football.
This offensive rookie class is the best I've ever seen. This is the first year in memory that two rookies have quarterbacked their teams to the brink of the playoffs. Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco are a combined 17-9. Ryan Clady, one of three starting rookie left tackles, has allowed a half-sack in 12 peerless starts for Denver. Seattle's John Carlson is one of the best tight ends to come out of the draft in years. Eddie Royal could finish with 80 catches for 1,000 yards in Denver. And the running backs. Chris Johnson (1,094), Matt Forte (1,081) and Steve Slaton (1,024) are 5-6-7 in the NFL rushing race.
Ryan would get my vote for Offensive Rookie of the Year if the balloting were this morning (the Falcons would be lost without him), but I'm someone who voted for Joe Thomas over Adrian Peterson a year ago, so I wouldn't rip you for going elsewhere with your pick. I'd probably go Ryan, Flacco, Clady, Forte, Johnson, Carlson, Slaton. Royal. Poor Slaton. He might gain 1,300 yards, and in another year, he might win it. This year he may get zero votes.
Jared Allen is really mad at Gosder Cherilus, and the Vikings, by the way, are in first place. You probably saw the play -- Cherilus, from a kneeling position, lunging at Allen's knees as he ran cross-field to try to catch Daunte Culpepper on a scramble in the Vikings-Lions game in Detroit. Allen, the $72-million free-agent defensive end, went down as if shot and writhed in pain on the turf for a few seconds before getting up and going straight for Cherilus. Inflicting punishment was on his mind, from the looks of it.
"I still don't like it,'' he said an hour after the game, though clearly he wasn't going to share with me what he intended to do to exact revenge. "But you take care of that stuff on the field. He came up to me later in the game and sort of apologized for it, but ... Let's just say the Lions-Vikings rivalry is going to have a lot more meaning for me going into the future.'' In other words train your cameras on Allen and Cherilus the first time they meet in 2009.
Allen's feistiness has been vital for the Vikings, who now might have the ransacking Williamses in place for the rest of the season, depending on how difficult this Starcaps is for a Minnesota judge to divine, beginning this week. Tackles Kevin and Pat Williams, the centerpieces to the best run defense in football, were suspended for four weeks for violating the NFL's steroid policy by taking a diet pill with a substance, Bumetanide, that can be used as a masking agent. As long as their reinstatement lasts, their team will hold off the Bears and win the NFC North.
I don't know how Wes Welker did what he did in Seattle. I mean this in a very positive way: In a business with a lot of interesting physical specimens, Welker is a freak of nature. Welker took the hit of a career last week against Pittsburgh across the middle, getting blown up by safety Ryan Clark on a vicious, but clean, hit. I wondered all week how Welker would respond. Would he miss any time? Call in sick? Beg his mother not to make him ever go out there again?
So he went to Seattle, caught 12 balls for 134 yards, added a two-point conversion catch on the decisive touchdown, and helped the Patriots come back to beat Seattle 24-21. Playing without Tom Brady, Welker has become Matt Cassel's ultimate security blanket and threatens to lead the NFL in receptions for the second-straight year. With 96 catches, he's four ahead of Houston's Andre Johnson with three games to play. A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, who coached Welker in college. "He's indestructible,'' Leach said. Couldn't have said it better. I hope the Patriots realize Welker's incredible value.