With all attention on Eagles-Giants, playoff picture begins to clear up
DeSean Jackson's punt return stole the show at NBC viewing room
Week 16's marquee matchup is Giants-Packers in what amounts to a playoff game
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NEW YORK -- We yell a lot in the fifth-floor Rockefeller Center viewing room of NBC's Football Night in America. Up to nine games in high-def on a big wall, and the 12 to 15 people in the room putting together the Sunday night show get a little excited from time to time. Oh, Rodney Harrison yells, often at big hits. Tony Dungy even yells a time or two per Sunday. I yell more than I ever did in a press box, where yelling is verboten. But I don't recall the sound coming out of the viewing room ever sounding like it did at 4:18 p.m. Sunday. It was something like:
"NOOOOO! OhwhatareyouDOINGYOUIDIOT!'' That's when Giants punter Matt Dodge, with 14 seconds left in a 31-31 game, chose to not do what his coach told him and actually punted the ball to the most dangerous punt-return man in football for no apparent reason.
"Noooooo! AHHHHHHHHH! OHHHHHHHH!'' That's when DeSean Jackson fumbled the punt, picked it up at about his 35-yard line and began frantically searching for daylight to run toward.
And "AHHHHHHHHHHHH! NOOOOOOOOOOO! Yougottabekiddingme! AHHHHHHH! LOOKATCOUGHLIN! AHHHHHHHHHHH!''
So this was the first wee-hours-of-Monday-morning writing session that I had a sore throat.
Back to Giants-Eagles, a game for the ages, in a moment. But let's see where we are with two weeks left in the regular season. Some weird happenings; it wouldn't be an NFL season without the weirdness.
The AFC, remarkably, is set -- almost. Upsets will happen (duh), but there's a good chance the AFC playoff bracket will look like this:
1. New England (12-2), East winner.
2. Pittsburgh (10-4), North winner. Steelers win a tiebreaker with Baltimore if they finish tied atop the division.
3. Kansas City (9-5) or San Diego (8-6), West winner. Chargers are at three-win Bengals and three-win Broncos, while K.C. hosts Tennessee and plucky Oakland. San Diego wins the division if there's a tie with the Chiefs.
4. Indianapolis (8-6) or Jacksonville (8-6), South winner. Colts, at Oakland and home with Tennessee, win the division if they win out.
5. Baltimore (10-4). Tiebreaker edge over Jets because of opening-week win.
6. New York Jets (10-4).
That sets up, then, as a Jets-at-AFC West in one wild-card game and Baltimore at Indianapolis in the other ... the same matches in the first round as last year's divisional round if the Chargers make it. This could be followed by a Colts-Pats divisional round game. Never boring in the AFC.
The 49ers (5-9) could actually win the NFC West, and if they do, let us pray we finally see the league make a sensible rule of not guaranteeing a division winner a home playoff game. It's possible a 12-4 Saints team could travel to play a seven-win NFC West winner. Bah humbug. Here's how the NFC West shapes up:
If San Francisco sweeps to finish 7-9 and Seattle doesn't also sweep to go 8-8, the Niners would win the division tiebreaker in either of two possible scenarios. Crazy stuff.
Atlanta needs one win (home with Saints, home with Panthers) to clinch NFC home-field. The NFC's going through Atlanta, folks. A Michael Vick NFC title game appearance at the Georgia Dome, perhaps? Quite possible.
Game of this weekend: Giants at Packers. It's a playoff game before the playoffs, basically. New Orleans looks pretty solid as the fifth seed. If the Packers win out (Giants, Bears at home), they're in. If the Giants win out (at Packers, at Redskins), they're in. But Green Bay likely has to win two to make it, because beating the Giants and losing to Chicago can be trumped by the Giants simply splitting.
A game that will live in infamy, or euphoria.
I have to say I've never seen eight minutes of football the way the Giants and Eagles played Sunday. Think of it: The Giants held the explosive Eagles to 198 yards and one touchdown in the first 52 minutes of the NFC East showdown game. They allowed 220 yards, plus a 65-yard punt-return and four touchdowns in the final eight minutes.
It started at 31-10, Giants, then the strange 65-yard touchdown to tight end Brent Celek when Giants safety Kenny Phillips whiffed on a tackle ... 31-17, 7:28 left ... On the ensuing kickoff, I wondered if Philly would try an onside kick. But I thought not, because they'd probably have time for two possessions, so why not just play defense for a series?
The Giants didn't put their hands team on the field -- the kick-return unit made up of backs, receivers and tight ends -- to give them the best chance to catch and down an onside kick. That's not where the mistake was made. Tom Coughlin and tight ends coach Tom Quinn stressed to the six men on the front line of the return team to watch out for the onside kick. Yet when David Akers approached the ball to kick off, the front players on the return team all took a couple of steps back, anticipating a regular, long kickoff. Why did they retreat? Just foolish and undisciplined, that's why.
Eagle ball on the Philly 43. On the second play, Vick sprinted upfield for 35 yards, running through the secondary for his longest run of the year. "It wasn't by design," Vick told me later. "It was all feel. The defense they were playing allowed me to do that.'' The over-pursuit, he meant. Three plays later, he ran it in from the four ... 31-24, 5:28 left ... The Giants punted it back to them with 3:01 left in the game and the Eagles took over at their 12.
Incomplete. Incomplete. Then Vick sped and cut for 33, and a minute later for 22 more. The Giants were gassed. So should Vick have been.
"Looked like you sprained an ankle or something and you were saving a little something on those runs,'' I said.
"No,'' he said. "My knee got bent up when I got sacked earlier, but then I started running again and I actually felt fine.''
Think about how much Vick got hit -- maybe six or seven really good shots, including once when he knocked hard into a FOX cameraman on the sidelines and he went sprawling to the turf. And here Vick was, running 35, 33 and 22 yards in the span of five minutes. That's 90 rushing yards in two series.
This drive ended with a sharp, short 13-yard TD strike to Jeremy Maclin ... 31-31, 1:16 left ... Giants stalled again. Fourth-and-17 at the Giant 29. Fourteen seconds to go. They'd have to punt. Back went Jackson. Coughlin told his rookie punter, Matt Dodge, that the kick had to go out of bounds. The most Philadelphia should be able to do, Coughlin thought, was run one final play. A huge longshot.
Someone on the Giant sidelines told me about the coaches' warning to the special teams and to Dodge: "They were warned. The warnings fell on deaf ears.''
Dodge had to jump a little for the center snap, but he wasn't pressured. He had the normal time to punt. Instead of angling the ball to the sideline, which might have given the Eagles a last-gasp desperation play from their 40 with, say, seven seconds to go, he booted a line drive.
"I picked a bad time to punt a straight line drive,'' Dodge said.
"I was like, 'What are they doing?' '' Said Vick. "Why'd they kick it to him?''
Jackson bobbled it, then regained the handle and squirted through a couple of good-sized holes. Ballgame.
"Their entire team ran off the field without shaking hands, which I felt was unsportsmanlike,'' Vick said. "But I know that's a tough way to lose.''
Two other points: I immediately wondered about Coughlin's job status if the Giants continue to slide. I think the current ownership and management likes Coughlin a lot, and even if New York doesn't make the playoffs, I believe Coughlin will stay. But if there's another debacle on the level of this game in the next two weeks, who knows?
And hiring Bill Cowher. I don't see it. Not really the Giants' style to break the bank for a coach most in the organization don't see as being altogether different from Coughlin.
But that was one hell of a loss for New York, the kind that could carry over to the next Biggest Game of the Year, Sunday at Green Bay.
Speaking of Cowher ...
We all know John Fox and his $6 million salary will be gone from Carolina at the end of the season. And the Panthers will look elsewhere for a coach. But it'll be a much less expensive coach. So scratch Cowher, who now splits his time between Raleigh and New York, because he won't be involved. Owner Jerry Richardson doesn't believe coaches are worth that much money.
Richardson and GM Marty Hurney are likely to look at the models of Mike Smith (Atlanta), Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh) and John Harbaugh (Baltimore) for their next man. I expect them to hire a defensive-minded head coach, with a smart young offensive assistant or coordinator brought in to coach the quarterbacks -- which could be either Jimmy Clausen or, seeing that the Panthers will likely have the first pick in the draft, Stanford's Andrew Luck, if he chooses to forgo his final two years of college eligibility to turn pro.
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