Surprising Jags, tumbling Titans, improving Vikings, more Snaps
Jacksonville has turned heads by going from worst to first in the AFC South
Kerry Collins' return has done nothing to spearhead the Titans' offense
Vikings owner Zygi Wilf waited too long to end the Brad Childress era
BALTIMORE -- Musings, observations and the occasional Week 13 insight as we await the Steelers-Ravens bi-annual bare-knuckle slugfest in the AFC North at M&T Bank Stadium Sunday night....
I'm not sure if anything should really shock us any more in an NFL season that has defied expectations in so many ways, but seeing the Jacksonville Jaguars make the trek from worst-to-first and go to the playoffs as champions of the AFC South is starting to become more than a distinct possibility.
And I still can't believe I just wrote those words. But the facts are the facts, and since Halloween day dawned, Jack Del Rio's Jags are 4-1, while the rest of the AFC South seems to be having a hellbent race to see whose season can go south the fastest.
With the Colts (6-6) self-destructing at home against the resurgent Cowboys in overtime on Sunday, Jacksonville remarkably enough exits Week 13 with what amounts to a 1½-game lead in the division, thanks to its tough-minded 17-6 win at slumping Tennessee (5-7). The Jaguars are 7-5 and, having beaten the Colts head-to-head, 31-28, in Week 4, hold the tiebreaker advantage over their nearest division rivals. With Houston and Tennessee both losing this week to sink to 5-7, the AFC South should come down to what happens when the Jaguars play at Indianapolis in two weeks.
It's a pretty enviable spot for a Jacksonville team that finished last in the AFC South at 7-9 in 2009, and was largely defined earlier this year by having been blown out four times by margins of 22 points or more in a span of six weeks. Those Jaguars had starting quarterback issues, a head coach who looked to be firmly on the hot seat, and they played their games amidst the backdrop of the never-ending questions about Jacksonville's long-term viability as an NFL city.
But that was then, and this is now. Jaguars quarterback David Garrard can suddenly do little wrong. Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew is running like a miniature Jim Brown. And, who knows, maybe this unsung and unlikely playoff-contending Jaguars team will go down in history as the team that saved pro football for the city of Jacksonville?
After all, this is a Jags club that already has pulled off a couple magic acts in beating the Colts on a 59-yard Josh Scobee field goal in October, and nipping the Texans on that most unlikely of Hail Mary touchdown passes in November. What's another miracle or two when you're on a roll?
In handing the totally punchless Titans their fifth consecutive defeat, Jacksonville got a career-best 186-yard rushing day from Jones-Drew (on 31 carries), and ran for 258 yards overall on a cold, windy day in Nashville that was made for a power-running game. The Jaguars gashed the Titans' run defense 53 times for a 4.9 average gain, riding that domination to a 17-0 first-half lead, with more than 21 minutes of possession time in the opening two quarters. It was Jones-Drew's fifth consecutive 100-yard game (he had just one in the Jags' first seven games) and gave him 1,177 yards for the season, his second consecutive 1,000-yard season.
But Jones-Drew we knew was a force. It's Garrard's play that has really opened eyes. He was only 14-of-19 for 126 yards in the tough conditions, but he didn't turn the ball over for the third time in the past five games and, for the second week in a row, chipped in with another rushing touchdown, giving him three in five games. Mix in a Jaguars defense that held Tennessee to just 220 yards of offense and two field goals (the Titans haven't scored a touchdown in their past 13 quarters), and Jacksonville was nothing like the team that lost 30-3 to Jeff Fisher's team seven weeks ago.
In the preseason, Indianapolis, Houston and Tennessee all looked like potential playoff teams, and the trio showed up plenty in terms of postseason predictions. But I don't recall anyone touting Jacksonville. So of course the Jaguars are best positioned in the division to make the AFC playoffs and try to do some damage once they get there.
In Jacksonville this season, they're asking "Why not us?'' So far, no one in the AFC South has come up with a good answer.
So much for the theory that Kerry Collins' return to the lineup would cure what ails the Titans' offense. Was Tennessee really ever 5-2 this season, with an offense that was averaging the second-most points in the league per game? Collins looked dreadful for most of the day, completing just 14-of-32 passes for 169 yards and two interceptions.
And what exactly has happened to Tennessee's once-vaunted running game? Chris Johnson had nine yards rushing on his first six carries on Sunday, and wound up with just 53 yards on 13 attempts. Johnson has 58 yards on 20 attempts the past two games, and his 1,026 yards on the season is a tad off the pace he'll need to crack that 2,500-yard rushing plateau he targeted.
Score another one for Vince Young over Jeff Fisher if the end of this season in Tennessee turns into a weekly referendum on who owner Bud Adams will side with and bring back in 2011. I'm not saying that's the right call, but Fisher's case, if it comes down to a showdown of either Young goes or he goes, is growing weaker by the week. Young isn't playing these days and thus can't do any further damage to his position. Such is not the case for Fisher with a team that's looking DOA.
Watching Mike Shanahan coach his moribund Redskins at the Meadowlands on Sunday, I got the feeling that he now finally realizes what he has gotten himself into. There's always a point in that first season of every new Washington head coach when it dawns on him that the Redskins job is a coach-killer for very good reason. You can see it in the eyes.
Maybe it came to him while watching Donovan McNabb play an uninterested, sloppy game that featured three fumbles by him (one lost) and two interceptions, including one in the end zone. Maybe it was the six overall Redskins turnovers that blunted any chance for Washington to stay in a game they wound up losing 31-7. Maybe it was the Giants' 197 yards of power rushing that sapped his team's will, or the sight of Redskins linebacker Bryan Orakpo having a very visible sideline meltdown in the second half, in which he stormed away from a defensive huddle and proceeded to kick anything in sight. And let's not forget a deactivated Albert Haynesworth, the $100 million man who might have been the only real winner in Washington on this day (because he didn't have to play in this stinker).
Whatever provided that tipping point, Shanahan definitely knows he's in the club now. No matter what buttons he pushes, nothing much works for his reeling Redskins. And so we -- and Daniel Snyder -- learn anew that there will be no easy fixes in Washington, which is 5-7 and looking like it intends to give Dallas a run for its money for last place in the NFC East.
At one point during a replay review in the Redskins-Giants game, referee Walt Coleman announced that "Denver'' had lost its challenge. Oops. Could you blame Shanahan for probably wishing he was back in his comfort zone with the Broncos about now?
Where do the Redskins currently stand in relation to their three NFC East rivals? Well, three weeks ago they lost 59-28 at home to the Eagles. When you add in Sunday's 31-7 loss at the Giants, that's a 90-35 level of domination, with a game at resurgent Dallas scheduled in two weeks.
The bottom line? There's plenty of work left to be done in still-dysfunctional D.C.
I trust by now Vikings owner Zygi Wilf knows he waited too long to end the Brad Childress era and begin his team's Leslie Frazier coaching tenure. The difference between Minnesota these past two weeks and the dysfunctional Vikings team we watched play in the season's first 11 weeks is too obvious to miss. And it was on display in Minnesota's 38-14 beatdown of a Bills team that has been no pushover of late.
Playing without Percy Harvin, Steve Hutchinson and, for most of the game, Brett Favre, the Vikings against visiting Buffalo still played with a sense of purpose and precision that was seldom seen this season under Childress. Minnesota's 38 points were a season high, and it should all make Wilf wonder what might have happened if he had pulled the plug on Childress and installed Frazier weeks earlier?
The Vikings are now 5-7 with their two-game winning streak, but had Wilf acted sooner, maybe Minnesota could have clawed its way back into the NFC North race and still made something of its Super Bowl-or-bust season.
Before we even learn the entire extent of Favre's shoulder injury -- and when do we ever really know anything fully when it comes to a Favre injury? -- I was convinced he would be returned to the lineup in Minnesota if he's deemed healthy enough to go next week at home against the Giants. Frazier confirmed that hunch in his postgame news conference.
I thought that would be the case because of how Frazier didn't equivocate in naming Favre his starter upon getting the interim head coaching gig in Minnesota. And while backup Tarvaris Jackson played well at times, he did throw three interceptions to go along with his two touchdown passes and 187 passing yards. If you're an interim head coach trying to earn your first full-time head coaching job, whose track record are you going to trust: Favre's or Jackson's?
But I'm sure we'll have all week to chew on the topic of whether Favre will or should keep his 297-game starting streak active, so why spoil the fun before it really begins?