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Week 14 Rewind: Contenders stumble
Just when we thought the playoff picture was coming into view, along came Week 14 of the NFL season.
There were 15 different scenarios that would have allowed teams to clinch postseason berths, division titles or home-field advantage. None of them came to pass following a bevy of upsets.
Atlanta, Baltimore and Chicago – all of which were leading or tied for first place in their respective divisions – lost. So did Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, two 7-6 squads that had entered Sunday tied for the inside track for the AFC’s second wild-card spot behind Indianapolis (9-4).
Tampa Bay (6-7) took a major step backward with a home loss to the lowly Philadelphia Eagles (4-9). Dallas and Washington improved to 7-6 to keep the heat on the New York Giants (8-5) in the NFC East.
And the most telling result of how unpredictable the playoff race is becoming: Two clubs that were counted out – St. Louis and the New York Jets – are now on two-game winning streaks to keep their faint postseason hopes alive.
Here’s a look at all this and more in the Week 14 edition of my Marvez Rewind:
Minnesota 21, Chicago 14: When it comes to Minnesota’s offense, running back
San Diego 34, Pittsburgh 24: The Chargers (5-8) finally didn’t fold in the fourth quarter, but the fact that they opened a 24-point lead against Pittsburgh (7-6) was even more remarkable under the circumstances. It speaks volumes that Chargers players responded in such a fashion after a U-T San Diego media report claimed that both head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith would be fired at season’s end. Without their top players at cornerback (Ike Taylor) and outside linebacker (LaMarr Woodley), the Steelers surrendered three touchdowns to Philip Rivers without registering an interception. They also produced just one sack against a Chargers offensive line that had surrendered 14 in the past three games. Offensively for Pittsburgh, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sharp in his first start in three weeks since suffering a rib injury. The Steelers need to find some answers quickly with games against Dallas, Cincinnati and red-hot Cleveland in their final three games.
Carolina 30, Atlanta 20: Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy insisted last week that Carolina was the "better" team. At least on this Sunday, they were. Atlanta (11-2) had only five first downs by the time Carolina (4-9) had opened a 23-0 lead. Over the past three weeks, no quarterback has played better than Cam Newton. He has completed 62.3 percent of his passes for 825 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Newton also has hurt teams with his legs, rushing for 246 yards and three touchdowns. That includes a 72-yard score down the sideline against the Falcons. In other words, Newton doesn’t have to worry about getting replaced by the Play 60 kid any time soon. As for Hardy, he backed his words with one sack, four tackles and three hurries of quarterback Matt Ryan. After an uninspired performance like this, I don’t expect Falcons players to continue inanely whining about a “lack of respect” from the media for not receiving more praise with the NFC’s best record.
Indianapolis 27, Tennessee 23: The Colts’ season grows more magical by the week. This time, it was Indianapolis finding a way to overcome a 20-7 deficit even with offensive line issues, two Andrew Luck interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown by Titans linebacker Will Witherspoon) and ongoing injury problems at running back. Credit for this win goes to the defense. Titans running back Chris Johnson’s longest gain was eight yards during a 19-carry, 44-yard showing. Indianapolis also did a much better job handling Titans quarterback Jake Locker in the second half. Locker passed for only 49 yards after posting 213 in the first two quarters. Cassius Vaughn sparked the turnaround with a three-yard interception return for a touchdown on a horrendous Locker pass out of the end zone. Vaughn and fellow Colts cornerback Vontae Davis each had eight tackles in their best games of the season. The Colts have now won eight games this season by seven or fewer points. A good test of how “real” the Colts are will come on the road next Sunday against AFC South-leading Houston (11-1).
New York Jets 17, Jacksonville 10: With the struggles of both offenses, this game had the potential to become the NFL’s first 0-0 tie since 1943. The Jets, though, made sure this didn’t happen by pounding Jacksonville’s porous run defense for 166 yards on 42 carries. That helped Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez end a streak of 17 consecutive series without leading his offense to a score. Jacksonville’s offense isn’t much better than the defense because of injuries that have decimated the wide receiver and running back corps. Even so, it took an interception by Jets cornerback Ellis Lankster of Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne to seal the win with 15 seconds remaining.
St. Louis 15, Buffalo 12: When the Rams (6-6-1) get their offense in gear, this team will be a terror. Buffalo (5-8) had averaged 30 points in its previous five home games. The Rams, though, forced two turnovers – including the Jo-Lonn Dubar interception that iced the victory in the final minute — while limiting the Bills to 285 yards and a 25-percent success rate on third downs (three-of-12). The Bills also did themselves in by botching an extra point and giving running back C.J. Spiller a mere eight touches even after starter Fred Jackson suffered what might be a serious knee injury. It’s reasons like this that Buffalo is now headed toward its NFL-high 13th consecutive season without a playoff appearance.
Cleveland 30, Kansas City 7: Anyone who tuned in late missed Kansas City’s only score – an 80-yard touchdown jaunt by Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles on the first play from scrimmage. The Browns (5-8) rolled for the next 59:48 to post their first three-game winning streak since the end of the 2009 campaign. An awful Chiefs season keeps getting worse with the loss of wide receiver Dwayne Bowe to what may be a significant rib injury. Rookie wide receiver Travis Benjamin’s 93-yard punt return for a touchdown is another reason why the Browns will almost certainly be parting ways with Josh Cribbs in the offseason. Benjamin is a younger, cheaper option.
Dallas 20, Cincinnati 19: The Cowboys overcame the horrific circumstances surrounding this game – the Saturday death of practice-squad linebacker Jerry Brown in an alcohol-related car crash involving Dallas nose tackle Josh Brent – in an emotional victory that came after Dan Bailey hit the game-winning 40-yard field goal as time expired. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo led the Cowboys on eight- and 13-play scoring drives in the fourth quarter to erase a 19-10 Bengals lead. Cincinnati squandered multiple chances to put this game away, with two key drops by wide receiver A.J. Green proving especially costly. Three drives inside the Dallas 15-yard line resulted in only nine points.
Washington 31, Baltimore 28 (overtime): Trust me — there won’t be a Redskins quarterback controversy. But Kirk Cousins does deserve praise for guiding Washington to victory after fellow rookie Robert Griffin III went down with a sprained right knee late in the fourth quarter. Cousins hit wide receiver Pierre Garcon for an 11-yard touchdown pass and then ran in for the two-point conversion that sent the game into overtime. That quarterback keeper was the same play Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan called in October 2008 with Houston’s Matt Schaub to pace a 29-28 victory over Miami as time expired. Special teams won the game for Washington in overtime with Kai Forbath hitting a 34-yard field goal shortly after Richard Crawford’s 64-yard punt return. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw for three touchdowns, but his two second-half turnovers led to six Washington points. Baltimore (9-4) has now lost two straight games for the first time since 2009. With a brutal three-game stretch against Denver, the New York Giants and Cincinnati to end the season, Baltimore is in danger of missing out on a first-round playoff bye and maybe the playoffs outright.
Philadelphia 23, Tampa Bay 21: While there is no hope for the Eagles this season, Nick Foles did provide some for the future. The quarterback set a franchise rookie passing record with 381 yards. His best pass spanned two-yards – the game-winning toss to wide receiver Jeremy Maclin as time expired. Eagles head coach Andy Reid said afterward that Foles successfully lobbied for the play-call on the sideline, which is encouraging as well. The Buccaneers have now dropped three straight games largely because of a leaky secondary and an offense that can’t keep pace on the scoreboard.
New York Giants 52, New Orleans 27: After a game like this, the Giants should be lobbying against any offseason changes to the existing kickoff format. Rookie running back David Wilson produced 227 of the franchise-record 287 kickoff return yards generated by New York, including a 97-yard touchdown. New York’s 2012 first-round draft pick was a beast rushing the football as well, adding 100 yards and another two scores on 13 carries. That’s quite a role-reversal from the season-opener when Wilson was quickly benched after losing a fumble against Dallas. Besides the special-teams disaster, the Saints were too sloppy on offense, with four turnovers to keep pace against the Giants. New York safety Stevie Brown led the way with two interceptions, raising his season total to seven. Not bad for a player who was unceremoniously dumped by Oakland, Carolina and Indianapolis before landing with the G-Men. Fittingly, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was in attendance to watch the Saints (5-8) fall out of playoff contention eight months after first announcing New Orleans players and coaches were going to get punished for participating in a bounty program that, as it turns out, may or may not have existed. There should finally be some resolution this week if ex-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue issues a ruling on Saints player appeals as expected.
San Francisco 27, Miami 13: The Dolphins (5-8) field a quality run defense, but San Francisco won this game on the ground. The 49ers generated more yards (155) than Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill produced in the air (150). Fifty of the 117 yards San Francisco gained in the second half came on quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s touchdown run to ice the victory with 2:10 left in the fourth quarter. The Dolphins had another bad day on special teams with Marcus Thigpen’s fumble on a punt return deep inside Miami territory, allowing the 49ers to start pulling away in the third quarter. Tannehill’s accuracy issues remain a concern for his long-term viability as a franchise quarterback, although general manager Jeff Ireland did him no favors by failing to acquire a difference-making wide receiver after trading Brandon Marshall in March.
Seattle 58, Arizona 0: This is the type of performance that gets head coaches fired, especially when their area of expertise is on the offensive side of the football like Ken Whisenhunt. Arizona had almost as many turnovers (eight) as first downs (10) in an effort even worse than in last week’s 7-6 loss to the New York Jets. John Skelton continued Arizona’s string of awful quarterback play with four interceptions in the first 2 1/2 quarters before being relieved by rookie Ryan Lindley. Both quarterbacks targeted Larry Fitzgerald on 11 passes. A potential Hall of Fame wide receiver finished with one reception for two yards. The game was so lopsided that Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson sat out almost the entire second half so Matt Flynn could get a shot (and showcase himself as potential offseason trade bait). If the Seahawks win next Sunday at Buffalo and San Francisco loses at New England, Seattle (8-5) could take control of the NFC West lead by defeating the 49ers at home in Week 16.
Green Bay 27, Detroit 17: The Packers (9-4) moved atop the NFC North by smashing a 4-9 foe once misguidedly projected as a legitimate threat to their divisional supremacy. Detroit’s vaunted defensive line got worn down as Green Bay pushed what has become a resurgent running game. Don Barclay — a name that would make a great pseudonym at any hotel — showed plenty of promise at right tackle with Bryan Bulaga (hip) out for the season. Barclay’s emergence would allow T.J. Lang to return to left guard where he is far more comfortable. Detroit’s ongoing lack of discipline continued with two avoidable acts: A group celebration penalty as tight end Tony Scheffler performed Acts I and II in an elongated theatrical touchdown presentation and Ndamukong Suh’s 15-yard roughing penalty well after Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had released a pass. Fortunately for Rodgers, Suh stayed above the belt with this hit. Kris Durham squandered his chance to fill the No. 2 wide receiver void created by the losses of Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles and Titus Young. Packers cornerback Tramon Williams has told me that Detroit’s Calvin Johnson was the wide receiver he most enjoyed competing against. Williams won this round by rendering Johnson a relative non-factor. Williams also told FOXSports.com he has no love for the wide receiver he will be assigned next week — Chicago’s Brandon Marshall.
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