New Orleans steals the show, but beware of streaking San Diego
Saints coach Sean Payton says he won't rest players down the stretch
Michael Vick's return to Atlanta; will the Steelers make the playoffs?
Bruce Gradkowski offensive player of the week; Who I like tonight, more
Football Insiders: Check out Stewart Mandel's College Football Overtime.
NEW YORK -- Best day of football of the year? Well, at least it was the best set of early games, with the most dramatic missed field goal of 2009, the Saints falling out of a Redwood and landing on their feet, Michael Vick actually engendering love, the Dolphins making a race of the AFC East, Bruce Gradkowski imitating Joe Montana, and the Colts and Saints -- the first time two teams have been unbeaten this late in any NFL season -- approaching perfection as polar opposites.
But I start this morning with a winner in one of the late games, the team on a seven-game winning streak (puny compared to 12-game streaks, of course), and the team all contenders want to see get upset early in the playoffs.
The Chargers want to show they're not your father's Bolts.
Rather than look at the narrow 30-23 victory in Cleveland with negativity, I look at it as an example of San Diego growing up. The Chargers built a 27-7 lead on a 27-degree wind-chill day, and even though San Diego likely won't face a frigid game in the playoffs, it's good to know the players can handle it if it comes. More likely, San Diego will find a road to the Super Bowl runs through Indianapolis. The Chargers would never say that makes them happy, but they don't have to. The stats say it.
"I don't think that's a team Indianapolis wants to play,'' says Tony Dungy, who might know a thing or two about what Indianapolis wants.
With the most recent game first, the past five San Diego-Indy meetings did not go well for the Colts. How they've gone:
2008 playoff, at San Diego: Chargers 23-17 (OT).
So let's see. The Chargers in 2005 beat the 13-0 Colts in Indy. The Chargers knocked the 13-3 Colts out of the playoffs in 2007 in Indy. The Chargers knocked the 12-4 Colts out of the playoffs in 2008 in San Diego.
I sense a trend.
The Chargers lead the league in matchup problems for defense. On Sunday in Cleveland, San Diego started two 6-foot-5 receivers, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, and two tight ends, 6-4 Antonio Gates and 6-2, 295-pound Brandon Manumaleuna. They subbed two more 6-5 wideouts, Legedu Naanee and Kassim Osgood. Smurfy Darren Sproles caught four balls. Gates had an eight-catch, 167-yard day. "Football is a game of matchups,'' Gates said from Cleveland. "Right now, our skill-position guys can match up well with defenses.''
Consider how the Chargers are playing in their seven-game win streak. They are scoring more than one unbeaten team, Indianapolis, in the past seven games, averaging 31 points during the win streak, and defending better than New Orleans, averaging 15 points allowed in their win streak.
"Our maturity level is higher,'' Gates said from Cleveland. "We realize it's all about now. Forget what happened last week, forget what we've got next week. It's now that counts. We've also realized all that stuff about talent doesn't win games for you. Having talent doesn't mean you'll win in the playoffs, and going 14-2 doesn't mean you'll win. We just want to get to the postseason and be playing well when we get there.''
Crazy game of the day. Or the year.
The play of the day: Trying to cut a 17-10 Washington deficit just before halftime, Drew Brees throws a desperation interception to Washington safety Kareem Moore at the Redskins' 30-yard line. Moore runs upfield with the ball, on his way perhaps to a 24-10 halftime lead, until encountering Robert Meachem of the Saints.
"When he got the interception,'' Meachem said via cell phone postgame, "he had two blockers in front of him. I thought the only way I had a chance to get at him was to knife through the two blockers, to avoid them and just get through them. He looked like he was carrying the ball a little loose. Those DBs aren't used to running with the ball.''
Meachem, a second-year man, hears defensive coordinator Gregg Williams every day in practice preaching "Strip, strip, strip.'' As Meachem said, "It's burned in my head. So I managed to get through the two blockers and I went for the ball.'' It's crazy how easy it was. Meachem grabbed it, and ran it 44 yards for the tying touchdown. Then, given life by my Goat of the Week, the Saints got the tying touchdown, a 53-yard bomb from Brees to Meachem, to send this one into overtime. There's no way it should have gotten to OT, of course. "Maybe it's our turn,'' Brees said after the game. No maybes about it, particularly after the overtime replay.
The replay of the day -- and the timeout of the day: On the third play of overtime, Jason Campbell completed a ball to fullback Mike Sellers in the flat. Sellers was upended by Chris McAlister, and either just before he was down or a millisecond after his elbow hit the ground, the ball came loose. The officials called the runner down by contact, and the Redskins went to run another play. At the last second, with Campbell calling signals at the line, it appeared replay official Larry Nemmers wasn't going to call for a booth review of the play, and so New Orleans coach Sean Payton called a timeout.
During a timeout, it's perfectly within the rules for the replay official to determine if the play should be reviewed. And Nemmers called for a review. Now, overnight, I watched this replay seven times. I believe it does not meet the most important criterion for being overturned -- namely, that it requires indisputable visual evidence to change the call on the field. The one angle where you can see Sellers upside down, with his elbow either touching the ground or very close to touching the ground, the ball has just been dislodged. It's very, very close. Referee Carl Cheffers called for a reversal. I wouldn't have. But you watch the play a few times and let me know what you think.
Now, if the play hadn't been overturned, the Redskins were still 40 yards out of field goal range where you'd trust the kicker. (Then again, would Jim Zorn have trusted Shaun Suisham after he missed from extra-point ranged earlier?) So the replay reversal didn't win the game. But it was a very big factor.
Sean Payton: "We're going for it.''
Payton's about to have a lot more admirers around the United States. He told me Saturday he's not going to take the foot off the accelerator down the stretch, not even if the Saints have homefield advantage clinched in the NFC playoffs. The Saints, instead of taking the last game or two to let players heal for the playoffs, will try to make history if they're in position. They're aiming for a perfect season.
Payton loved what Tom Coughlin did in 2007, having his Giants play the Patriots like it was the seventh game of the World Series in a meaningless final game of the regular season, going down to defeat valiantly and narrowly, and setting up the Giants' 4-0 playoff run that ended in the Super Bowl upset of the perfect Patriots.
I'm not saying what the Colts have done over the years -- resting their key players so they'll be fresh for the playoffs when their playoff position can't change -- is wrong. Obviously, fluky plays can happen and Peyton Manning or Reggie Wayne or Dwight Freeney could get hurt on any snap of the ball. But the Colts are the winningest regular-season team of this decade, and here's what they have to show for it: eight playoff appearances, one Super Bowl victory and five first-game playoff losses. It was particularly disastrous in 2005 and 2007, when the Colts went a combined 27-5, rested many of their starters, rested them some more with a playoff bye, then went out and lost at home to Pittsburgh and at home to San Diego, respectively.
Jim Caldwell says the same thing is planned this year when the Colts clinch homefield, and with a three-game lead and four games to go, Indy could have three late-season games to snooze. That could mean taking a month off before a battle-tested team like New England or Baltimore comes to Indiana for a Jan. 16 or 17 playoff game.
Payton's not going to do that. He thinks his players -- many playoff rookies -- will be energized by going for it. And though you might get the PC answer from most of the players, I can tell you guys like Drew Brees definitely will want to make a run at history. No team has ever gone 19-0; the Patriots came within a velcroed David Tyree catch of doing it two years ago. When I asked Meachem about it Sunday, he said, "I feel good about that. We always want to play. If our coach says that, we've got to back him and go out and do it.''
The landscape changed quite a bit Sunday. New Orleans (12-0) took a two-game lead over 10-2 Minnesota when the Vikes lost in Arizona. For the Saints to lose home-field advantage now, Minnesota would have to go 4-0 down the stretch, and New Orleans would have to lose two of its final four games (all NFC games). Because there's no head-to-head game this year between the Saints and Vikings, the tiebreaker would come down to conference record. My scenario would give the Saints and Vikings 14-2 records, but Minnesota would win homefield by virtue of an 11-1 NFC record, while New Orleans would be 10-2 in the conference.
It's easy to say the Saints have it locked now, but who'd have thought New Orleans could be taken to overtime by the Redskins? New Orleans will play at Atlanta on Sunday -- GM Thomas Dimitroff says injured quarterback Matt Ryan (turf toe) told him he would play against the Saints, but he's at best questionable -- and it's a playoff game for the 6-6 Falcons. Then Dallas plays at New Orleans, and that could be a must-win for the Cowboys, who have a bear of a schedule the rest of the way. Final two games for New Orleans: Tampa Bay, at Carolina. Should follow form, but if the Panthers come to play, their top-tier running game could make it a time-of-possession game.
Could Bruce Gradkowski be the Raiders quarterback in 2010?
As much as I've killed the Raiders over the past four or five years, I have to give them credit for a heroic win at Pittsburgh. I'm sure it didn't make up for the Immaculate Reception to Al Davis, but in a week when desperate fans put up a billboard urging Al to cede football control of his franchise, this was one of the sweetest, unlikeliest wins in recent Raiders history. And it happened because a journeyman kid from Pittsburgh, Bruce Gradkowski, threw more touchdown passes in the final 10 minutes (three) than JaMarcus Russell threw in his nine games this year (two).
Gradkowski, 10 of 16 for 188 yards and those three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, led the Raiders back from deficits of 10-6, 17-13 and 24-20 in the last period with a brilliant mix of throws on the run and well-placed deep throws from the pocket. In the process, he planted Russell deep on the bench for the rest of the season and may well have put himself in play to contend for the Raiders quarterback job in 2010.
Why not? Oakland has tried the millionaire kid with zero work ethic. Why not try the blue-collar kid from western Pennsylvania and the Mid-American Conference (Toledo) who grew up dreaming of being Dan Marino? At least he'll work at it to try to make his dreams come true.
Gradkowski plays like a Pittsburgher. According to Jerry McDonald of the Oakland Tribune, left tackle Mario Henderson was staring up at the replay board in the end zone in the Raiders huddle on the winning series when Gradkowski yelled at him: "Stop [expletive] looking at that thing and get your mind right!'' As Henderson said, "I looked at him like, 'You talkin' to me? OK, you're right. You're right. You're the man.''
"When I'm out there, it's my offense, and that's how I'm going to lead,'' Gradkowski said.
To Raiders fans, Christmas just came early. Gradkowski's their new icon.
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