Snap Judgments: Steelers stumble, AFC East tightens, Saints survive
The Steelers blew three fourth-quarter leads in their fourth consecutive loss
Now 1-5 away from home, New England's air of invincibility has evaporated
The magic carpet ride continues for Sean Payton and his charmed Saints
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a spectacularly lucky Week 13 when it comes to doses of late-game drama, huge upsets and scintillating finishes.
Mike Tomlin promised to "unleash hell in December,'' but I don't think this is what the Steelers head coach meant. Pittsburgh is in the midst of its own version of hell all right, but that's what a stunning four-game losing streak feels like for the defending Super Bowl champions about now. Every excruciating loss hurts worse than the last one, and none more so than Sunday's 27-24 loss to Oakland at Heinz Field.
The Steelers hadn't lost as many as four in a row since the middle of the 2003 season, but that stat doesn't remotely tell the story of how they let their latest stomach-churner get away. The Raiders and Steelers combined for five lead changes, 35 points, and almost 400 yards of offense in the fourth quarter after Pittsburgh had quietly built a 10-6 lead after three.
But Oakland scored three touchdowns in the final 15 minutes to overcome three different four-point Pittsburgh leads, with rookie receiver Louis Murphy hauling in game-winning 11-yard catch with nine seconds left. It was the fifth time in six losses this season that the Steelers blew a fourth-quarter lead.
The Steelers aren't dead in the water at 6-6 in the AFC wild-card chase, but after losing at Kansas City and home against Oakland in a three-week span, how can you assume any victory for Pittsburgh at this point? Denver (8-4) is two games up on the Steelers with four weeks remaining in the wild-card chase, while Jacksonville (7-5) and Baltimore (6-5 entering Monday night's game at Green Bay) also have better positioning than Pittsburgh as the stretch run continues.
The 2006 Steelers (8-8) were the most recent defending Super Bowl champs to miss the playoffs, and the wrong kind of history appears to be repeating itself in Pittsburgh.
Well, well, well. Looks like we have an AFC East race after all. The Jets (6-6) beat the Bills in Toronto Thursday night, and the Dolphins (6-6) shocked the Patriots (7-5) in Miami on Sunday, and just like that, the top three teams in the division are all within a game of each other.
So much for the Patriots' vaunted bounce-back factor. And so much for their decade-long ability to win on the road. New England entered play not having lost consecutive games since November 2006, but with two road losses in a span of seven days, at the Saints and at the Dolphins, the Patriots are now on a 1-3 slide and just trying to hang on in a division they once looked like they would easily own in 2009. New England is a mind-boggling 1-5 away from home this season, with its only win against the Bucs in London -- in effect a neutral site.
New England's first four losses this season all came on the road against undefeated teams (Jets, Broncos, Colts and Saints), but the six-loss Dolphins have now pinned one on them too. The Patriots have four winnable games remaining, and might still claim the AFC East at 11-5. But it certainly seems like they have yet to recover from that devastating loss at Indianapolis three weeks ago, when a certain 4th-and-2 call transformed a near-certain win into a crushing defeat.
This much is clear: New England's air of invincibility hasn't really ever returned after the Super Bowl XLII loss to the Giants.
All week I thought the Saints were vulnerable to an upset at Washington, because it seemed to me that New Orleans played and won its Super Bowl last Monday night at home against New England. Could the 11-0 Saints possibly get back up for a game against the plucky, but 3-8 Redskins? Turns out the answer was no, and then eventually yes.
If New Orleans goes on from here and runs the table to post a 16-0 regular season, this will be the ridiculous, fairy tale victory the Saints had no business earning, but found a way to collect anyway with considerable help from Washington. Down 10 points three different times and missing four defensive starters, the charmed Saints kept rallying all game long, and finally got the break they needed when Redskins kicker Shaun Suisham some how missed a 23-yard game-icing field goal that would have put Washington up by 10 just inside of two minutes.
The 33-30 overtime win clinched the NFC South for the Saints, and puts them another step closer to a perfect season. Like the huge comeback win at Miami in Week 7, the Saints got yet another reminder that no one game is over this season until they say it's over.
And the magic carpet ride continues for Sean Payton and Co. in the Big Easy.
Well it was fun while it lasted, but the Titans' historic drive from winless to the playoffs is all but over. Tennessee's 27-17 loss at Indianapolis means the best it can do is 9-7, and that's not going to get it done when it comes to the AFC wild-card race. Especially since the Titans now have a 3-7 AFC record, and that's a killer when it comes to tiebreakers.
Tennessee made too many mistakes (two Vince Young interceptions) and failed to cash in on a pair of deep red-zone drives, going for it on fourth down without success both times. The Titans didn't play horribly, but they didn't capitalize on their chances, and this time there was no fourth-quarter Young magic to conjure up. Indianapolis had posted five straight fourth-quarter rallies coming into the game, but Tennessee didn't make it sweat enough to need a sixth.
The Colts didn't really accomplish much with Sunday's 10-point win over visiting Tennessee. All they did was:
-- Win their 21st consecutive regular season game, tying New England's NFL record, set from 2006-2008. (They can break it next week at home against Denver).
-- Picked up their 12th win for a seventh consecutive season, extending their own league record in that department.
-- Tied the 1990s 49ers for most victories in a decade, with 113. Indy has four more chances to stand alone when it comes to that distinction, and I like their chances.
-- Oh, and did we mention they remained undefeated at 12-0, matching the Saints' start and creeping within one win of the best start in Colts franchise history? Indy's 2005 team started 13-0, then lost two out of last three games to finish 14-2.
It's just like the Redskins to play so well for most of the game and look like a legitimate NFL team once their season's already lost. Where has this Jason Campbell been all season? His career-high 367 yards and three touchdowns were eventually wasted in the overtime defeat to New Orleans, but Campbell showed he can lead a big-league offense after all. The Redskins put 30 points on the board (their previous high this season was 27 at Denver), and would have had more if Jim Zorn, Sherman Lewis and whomever else is in charge in D.C. hadn't gotten conservative in the fourth quarter.
Campbell wasn't the only Redskins offensive star who had a great day. Washington's 2008 draft class is suddenly looking much better with the emergence of receiver Devin Thomas and tight end Fred Davis. The duo combined for 12 catches for 153 yards and three touchdowns against the Saints. Thomas's seven-reception, 100-yard, two-touchdown game was especially eye-opening, given that he entered Sunday with just one receiving touchdown in the first 27 games of his NFL career.
But Thomas and Davis weren't even the biggest receiving stories of the day in the Saints-Redskins thriller. New Orleans third-year veteran Robert Meachem has become a certifiable touchdown machine of late. Meachem had two more scores Sunday, and finished with eight catches for 142 yards. He has seven touchdowns in the Saints' past five games.
His 53-yard scoring bomb tied the game at 30-30 with 1:19 remaining in regulation, and that wasn't even his best work of the day. Meachem stripped Redskins defensive back Kareem Moore (who had intercepted Drew Brees) of the ball late in the first half, returning the recovery 44 yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 17-17 at the break.
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