Few things in professional sports are as demanding as the steady grind of an NFL season, yet sometimes you can distill an entire campaign for a team into a single, salient moment. Five teams met their fate Sunday, with deflating losses dimming, if not outright crushing, any playoff hopes the Chargers, Bills, Dolphins, Eagles and Lions may have had.
And each of those losses had a defining play, one that swayed the balance for good in the direction of their opponent, casting a shadow likely too great for these teams to overcome. An already fairly clear NFL playoff picture came even more into focus this weekend with teams on the periphery of the fight for a final wild-card spot not up to the task of capturing what could have been defining victories and instead dropping off the pace.
Chargers choke (again): One could argue that San Diego went sideways in a devastating home loss to the Broncos two weeks back, and clearly that divisional loss trumps Sunday's defeat at Tampa Bay for tiebreaker purposes. But losing like they did to the Buccaneers with a trip to Denver looming? With visions of the Monday night debacle still in their heads? Especially after showing signs of recovery in Week 9's Thursday night trouncing of the Chiefs in which Philip Rivers was nearly perfect? All of it looks damning.
|Week 10 in review|
The way it went down will haunt Rivers. The Chargers were on the cusp of a comeback, trailing by three in the fourth quarter. Rivers was on the run near the sideline -- not all that mobile to begin with -- with four Bucs defenders surrounding him, and receiver Denario Alexander a wishful-but-not-realistic option on that side of the field. Two players pressured from the left, Rivers was in no position to throw back into the field of play, and could have just run out of bounds, but he lofted the kind of impotent pass he's regularly thrown the past few years (leading to never-ending rumors that something is wrong with his throwing shoulder). It was easily picked off and returned to the house, one of two fourth-quarter picks Rivers threw (he leads the NFL with six fourth-quarter picks, one more than Brandon Weeden, and his 56.5 rating in that quarter is by far the worst of any regular starter). It's what the Chargers have become, who they are, and I cannot see them catching Denver in the AFC West, or the Colts for the final wild-card spot (they also have Baltimore, Cincy and Pittsburgh looming after the Broncos game).
Bumbling Bills: I didn't give Buffalo a real shot to be a factor in the playoff race, but if they were going to have any chance to salvage the season it had to start Sunday with a win over New England. And the Bills gave the Pats more than they could handle, gashing the Pats defense, staying with them blow for blow in a race to see who hit 40 points first. They kept battling even after Fred Jackson was ruled to have fumbled at the 1 and they marched back near the end zone trailing 37-31 in the dying seconds. That's when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick did what he has so often done in a key sequence -- he threw a pick. This one went right into the arms of Devin McCourty, letting the Patriots escape and putting the 3-6 Bills out of their misery.
Dolphins' demise: Two weeks ago, the Dolphins had me convinced they had the inside track for that wild-card spot I'm now handing to the Colts. But on Sunday, for the first time in probably six weeks, Ryan Tannehill looked like a rookie quarterback and that Dolphins defense, so stout, playing well above where I thought it could, started to crack. And Joe Philbin looked like a novice coach as well, and his decision to bench Reggie Bush after an early fumble could prove to be a turning point for their season. Chris Johnson was running wild, the Titans were building a 21-0 lead, Tannehill was looking pick-happy, and one of Miami's best weapons -- a player who could help them establish some ball control -- watched as a glorified cheerleader. Against the NFL's worst defense, Bush needed to be a big part of that game plan, and his benching and this 37-3 loss leaves Miami 4-5 with a three-game stretch against Seattle, New England and San Francisco coming up after Thanksgiving.
Eagles done, too: This was the Eagles' last stand. The loser of the game vs. Dallas was going to be done, cooked, even with the Giants struggling and leaving the door open a bit in the NFC East. It was must-win for two coaches on the hot seat and the Eagles were right in this thing, even despite losing quarterback Michael Vick to a concussion early on. Nick Foles was playing well, the defense was making stops and generating some pressure ... and then with the Cowboys having just tied the score at 17 on one of their first decent plays on offense all day, Dwayne Harris returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown after Philadelphia's next possession. Dallas would score again quickly, notching 21 points in about three minutes, but the moment the Eagles lost that lead and had Foles chasing the game in the fourth quarter, the downward spiral was taking hold. Philadelphia's schedule doesn't look that grueling and they still get another shot at the Cowboys, but even getting to 9-7, which might not be good enough, leaves them with almost no margin for error, and they just haven't played decent, consistent football this season.
Lions languishing: The Lions are the team I struggled most with including on this list, and they do hold a tiebreaker over Seattle, my front-runner for the second wild-card spot. But they also have been swept by the Vikings -- who refused to go away Sunday -- and you find me a team that has a tougher task down the stretch than Detroit's: Green Bay, Houston (on Thanksgiving on CBS!), Indianapolis, Green Bay, Arizona, Atlanta, Chicago. Yikes.
The Lions (4-5) did their normal thing Sunday, starting slowly, thinking they could pull off another wacky comeback. But they live dangerously far too often, and when Adrian Peterson found a hole, surged outside the right hashmarks and ran 61 yards for a touchdown to make the score 31-17 midway through the fourth quarter, he dashed the Lions' hopes as well. With no Percy Harvin, the Lions knew it would be AP all day, yet he rumbled for 120 yards in the final 15 minutes, with the Vikings shrugging off their recent slide and staying right in the hunt at 6-4. And what does all of this say about the winning teams in these games? Well, the Vikes, Bucs and Cowboys remain right there with Seattle for a final wild-card spot (the Packers are getting in and the Bears, at 7-2, won't collapse enough to miss the dance). Even if Seattle catches the 49ers, I can't see San Fran missing out entirely, either. So it's a fight for one spot. The Saints are alive, too, and must be feared down the stretch despite their horrid start. I still give the edge to Seattle to come out of that mix, and it will be fun watching this play out till the end.
Bucs weighing Freeman's worthThe Bucs suddenly find themselves in the interesting position of having to guess where the contract numbers might go for quarterback Josh Freeman, whose rookie contract is set to expire after 2013 and who is having a tremendous rebirth the past two months.
Freeman was one of the feel-good stories of 2010, his first as a full starter, and looked like one of the bright young stars in the game. He, like the entire franchise, was a mess in 2011, and he was pretty bad through September as well. But since October, few have been better. In his past five games, Freeman is 90 for 154 for 1,467 yards, with an NFL-best 13/1 TD/INT ratio and a rating of 116 -- only Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning have a higher rating in that span.
If Freeman keeps this up, with guys like Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan looking at offseasons in which they could be signing big deals, and with Tony Romo still likely to get a nice chunk of Jerry Jones' wallet in his eventual extension, the market could set up very well for Freeman. He finally has a dynamic pass-catching talent in Vincent Jackson, and the Bucs seem to be for real with their offense dominant and their defense generally good enough.
Tampa spent a ton of money in free agency this past year, and it could be another year in which it digs deep to put up some heavy guarantees and up-front money to get Freeman tied up for another five years or more.
Guess who happens to rank fifth in the NFL in passer rating in that time frame I just mentioned (since the first week of October). Russell Wilson. The Seattle rookie quarterback has played six games in that stretch (others have had byes in there) and is completing 63 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions and a 101.6 rating, ahead of Tom Brady and just behind Drew Brees.
• Still trying to figure out why John Harbaugh called that fake field goal for a touchdown when already blowing out Oakland, 41-17. It wasn't necessary and it's not the kind of thing the Ravens normally do. I'm a huge Harbaugh supporter and don't believe enough is made of his stellar five-year run with the Ravens, but this was a rare time when I found myself a bit flabbergasted by a head coaching decision. Not sure what the Raiders did to warrant it, and I guess it sends a message to the rival Steelers, who Baltimore faces twice in the next three weeks, but it was unnecessary.
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• The Saints have new life after beating the previously undefeated Falcons, but you could see the contrasts between more conservative and defensive-minded Joe Vitt and their suspended coach, Sean Payton, late in the game. With the Saints backed up to their end zone, needing a first down to clinch the game, New Orleans went between the tackles in the run game when one Drew Brees completion would have prevented Atlanta from getting the ball back around midfield with enough time to score on that beleaguered Saints defense. In the end it was a moot point, as the Falcons came close but failed to pull off a last-second score. But I get the sense Payton might have been more aggressive there (the combination of New Orleans' poor start under interim coach Aaron Kromer, coupled with their resurgence under Vitt, has to be a pretty significant blow to Kromer's head coaching options elsewhere, as he had been getting interviews in the past).
• Have to give it to my man Pat Kirwan. He was all over the trend of record blocked punts around the league, and damned if I wasn't sitting right next to him watching games Sunday when we got another one, this time Tampa Bay for a score.
• Why did the Saints wait so long to unleash Chris Ivory? He has changed the dimension of their offense, he is flat-out running angry and they are a much more physical team with him in there.
• Wonder if other clubs will be able to duplicate the Saints' run approach against Atlanta? We'll see if anything got exposed in that game.
• The Giants should consider shutting Ahmad Bradshaw down for a few weeks -- even after their bye. He clearly is hurting. I wonder how long David Diehl stays as a starting guard as well? I figure we see some adjustments from the champs coming out of their bye.
• Baltimore finally seemed to make a committed effort to get their young tight ends involved early Sunday. They will desperately need them to make plays against the Steelers, and try to get those linebackers running back in coverage rather than pressuring Joe Flacco. I wonder if the Ravens find a way to get languishing tackle Bryant McKinnie more involved against the Steelers? He struggles in run blocking but is the rare recent Ravens tackle who has bested James Harrison and/or LaMarr Woodley when the Steelers bring the heat.