Crennel's Chiefs take the spotlight in an interesting Week 15
Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson duo make Lions a dangerous playoff team
Aaron Rodgers is likely still MVP, but Drew Brees, Tom Brady are gaining on him
Fine 15; Defensive Player of the Year Awards; Ten Things I Think I Think; more
Making the playoff math look nice and easy with two weeks to play (plus one very important game tonight in San Francisco):
Clinched already. Green Bay, New Orleans and San Francisco have secured playoff spots. Green Bay's magic number to clinch the No. 1 seed is one over the Niners.
Second seed. A 49er win tonight over Pittsburgh gives them the two seed for now. A Pittsburgh win drops San Francisco to the third seed, and puts the specter of a Handshake Bowl rematch into view -- Detroit at San Francisco, Jim Schwartz at Jim Harbaugh, in one of the two NFC wild card games.
Eagles alive. If the NFC East ends in a three-way tie at 8-8 between Dallas, New York and Philadelphia, the Eagles would win the tiebreaker, be the fourth seed in the NFC and get a home playoff game.
Wild Cards. Atlanta and Detroit, 9-5, are in great shape to make the postseason. Each can lose one of the last two and still be guaranteed a berth.
Clinched already. Pittsburgh, New England, Houston and Baltimore have wrapped up playoff spots.
Top seed. Pittsburgh wins the top seed if it wins out. New England wins the top seed if it goes 2-0 and Pittsburgh loses once.
Sixth seed. The Jets and Bengals, tied for the last playoff spot this morning, would go to strength of victory as the tiebreaker, and New York holds a slight edge there ... but that could change depending on the results of their 2011 opponents in the last two weeks.
Wild, wild West. Kyle Orton riding into Denver in Week 17 to play the man who took his job, Tim Tebow -- with the winner making the playoffs? Here's how it happens: Home teams win all games involving AFC West teams next week (Buffalo over Denver, Kansas City over Oakland, Detroit over San Diego). Then Orton-Tebow is a play-in game in Week 17 ... and who knows? Maybe NBC finally gets the Tebow game it wanted so badly this weekend, this time with a playoff berth on the line.
We say it every year around this time, but this season's really starting to get interesting. The Packers took a body blow Sunday in Kansas City, and the Patriots delivered one in Denver. Who are the Giants? The Jets? (The Jets, whose 2011 defense has allowed 30 or more points five times now, including the 45-point embarrassment at Philly Sunday, after which Calvin Pace told the New York Times: "We're lucky they had a heart and stopped scoring. Because if not, it would have gotten really disgusting.") Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady played great. Romeo Crennel coached great. And the Colts won't be ignominious. On with the show:
Romeo Crennel finally tastes the Gatorade.
In all his years assisting Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells, and his four years coaching the Browns, Crennel never got the bucket dumped over his head. "Not even the year we won 10 games there,'' he said. "The only time I got it was after I got fired in Cleveland, and I coached in an East-West All-Star game in Orlando against Marty Schottenheimer, and we won. That's it. I have to say, it felt pretty good today.''
Kansas City ended Green Bay's hopes for a perfect season, winning 19-14 at Arrowhead behind a steady game by Kyle Orton and a relentless game from the defense that wanted to show management that Crennel deserves the full-time gig.
Crennel did a couple of things to give the Chiefs a chance against the Packers, six days after taking over for the fired Todd Haley. Haley was wedded to the highly marginal Tyler Palko for some reason, through four mostly poor performances, and Crennel yanked him for veteran Orton during the week. And his game plan against the 13-0 Packers was just what his players wanted to see. Aggressive, risk-taking.
"We're quite fond of him and his philosophy,'' cornerback Brandon Carr told me. "Today, we laid everything on the line. The way Romeo coaches, he makes you confident. He told us, 'You're professional athletes. You can win this game.' ''
I like what Crennel said about the coaching change. "I think the change put our guys on edge,'' he said. "There has to be a bottom-line mentality that you're going to be judged for what you do on the field. These guys really had that today.''
I told Crennel when he watches the tape, I thought he'd see a defense that played as hard as any in football Sunday. "I'm glad you noticed that,'' he said. "That's what I felt down on the field."
It helped that the Packers line ended the game in tatters, with Tamba Hali abusing Marshall Newhouse at left tackle, and the middle of the line caving in late after Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod were lost with injuries. But there's no question the Chiefs were playing for Crennel. They know there will be a coaching search (GM Scott Pioli's second), and they'd like to give Crennel his second chance at a full-time gig.
"Everyone in this game has an ego,'' Crennel told me. "I have one too. I'd like to have another opportunity to prove I can do this job. I had one in Cleveland and we won 10 games one year, then got hit hard with injuries the next year. Scott knows me, and that helps. But he knows me as an assistant, not as a head coach. Now he's got to see me as a head coach.''
Crennel used The Gladiator to help get his team ready for this game. He'd seen it last weekend in the hotel, before the Chiefs played the Jets, and he took some Russell Crowe into the Saturday night team meeting with him. "I told the team that, like the gladiator, we were going to play a great team in Green Bay, and no matter what comes out of these gates, we've got to stay together,'' Crennel said. "We did that. I told them after the game, 'Everyone expected us to die with honor today. But we're not ready to die.' ''
Amazingly, they're not. A lot has to fall right next week, but the Chiefs have a chance to enter Week 17 with a playoff prayer.
The Lions look dangerous. Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are two big reasons.
The way Stafford figures it, he owed the Lions something big midway through the fourth quarter, after he was sacked by Tommy Kelly deep in his own territory in the Black Hole. The Raiders pounced on that and scored to go up 27-14 with eight minutes left in the game. On the next drive, Stafford converted a third-and-10 and a fourth-and-two, then finished it with a three-yard pass to Titus Young. Raiders, 27-21. The defense held and the Lions got the ball back -- but at their own two, after Shane Lechler pinned them there with 2:14 to play.
"I just try to be calm in the huddle,'' Stafford told me from the locker room. "I didn't say anything special. We just played. When you're 98 yards away, on the road, with two minutes and change left and no timeouts, you've just got to execute your plays or you're going to lose. I don't think it helps to get all emotional about it.''
Watching this drive, I sensed what I saw in training camp with the Lions last summer. When Johnson is covered, Stafford throws to him anyway. On this drive, he went to him for 21, 48 and then again, with Stanford Routt interfering with Johnson at the Oakland six. Then, with a safety and linebacker in coverage in the end zone (might want to rethink that scheme, Chuck Bresnahan), Johnson slipped behind them and Stafford, under pressure, falling back, zipped a perfect spiral to Johnson. Touchdown. Ballgame.
Of all the excited teams Sunday, no team reacted like Detroit. The Lions looked like they just made the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, which they probably did. Detroit, 9-5, will make the playoffs if they win one of the last two, or if a team or two trailing them loses one game.
Stafford, drafted to be the savior of the franchise in 2009, has never shirked from the task. He understands the responsibility that comes with being the first pick in the draft, and at 23, takes to it well. On Sunday, at 23 years and 10 months, he became the second-youngest player ever (Dan Marino, 1984) to throw for 4,000 yards with 30 touchdowns in an NFL season. Finally, the Lions have a top draft choice who's worth what they paid for him. Well, Johnson is too.
"I was never that [a savior],'' Stafford said.
I beg to differ.