Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Politics, NFL Style: A Guide to the Presidential Playoffs

There are so many candidates currently vying for the presidency, that it’s gotten to look like the NFL playoff grid. Here are some sporty thumbnail sizeups about each, offered roughly the way the polls (which I don’t trust, by the way) have been generally lining them up. We’ll divide the candidates just like NFL teams, into the Democrat Conference and the Republican Conference. The top four become “division winners,” and all the rest are “wild card” teams.

Regrets to guys like Dennis Kucinich and Tom Tancredo, who didn’t make the cut here despite playing some determined political football.

DEMOCRAT CONFERENCE

North Division—Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton’s favorite pronoun is “I.” Listen to how often she uses it. Clearly this is a campaign about her, and not about some kind of loyalist groundswell tied to enthusiasm about her specific plans for improving America. She was not asked to run. You rarely hear the humble, movement-oriented “We” come out of her mouth. She speaks in platitudes, offering a better country, but she never advances specifics about how she’ll actually accomplish her goals. It’s very odd to watch her work. Personally, I find it scary, verging on demagogic. The face she is presenting to all those farmers in Iowa is a mask out of ancient Greek theater. She tugs at their heartstrings with blather about “bringing home the troops,” and “supporting our police and firefighters,” and posits bromides on health-care and (my favorite) education. But ask yourself, Do you really want those people back in the White House, with their twisted marriage and their out-of-control egos? Also, Clinton claims to have all kinds of experience, but really she’s only just completed her first term as a U.S. senator, which happened as a carpetbagger after she moved to New York (basically so she could run for the Senate). I don’t know about you, but I don’t count eight years as First Lady as “experience” of any kind, no matter what she says. And she has the temerity to attack Barack Obama for being a novice. She has supporters, this we know, but is it only because she’s a woman?

East Division—Joe Biden
Now here is an experienced guy. Biden’s had his controversies through the years, but they’ve been minor tempests in teapots. He’s been the senator from Delaware for nearly 35 years, and is generally recognized as a thoughtful, moderate fellow. He’s chaired important Senate committees, he knows Washington inside and out, he speaks well and he appears sincere and smart. He’s also ruggedly handsome, and you’d think, as a respected lawmaker and serious-minded individual, he’d be a more imposing player than he has been heretofore.

South Division—John Edwards
Edwards and his $400 haircuts are suspect, but he’s reading a little more sincere these days. Like Clinton, he only has one term as a U.S. senator on his resume, but he had the national stage as the veep candidate with John Kerry in 2004. He claims to be for the little guy, for whom he had success in his law career, gaining huge medical malpractice settlements which made him (and his clients) wealthy. (He even sued the Red Cross—three times!) His wife is battling cancer, and it’s hard to know what to make of his decision to continue running for the presidency despite such a personal event. Is it courage, or hubris, or opportunism? Edwards has talked intensely of reforming health care, but, like everybody else, is vague on specifics. Generally, he comes off as a moderate, but in the absence of communicating any greatly imaginative ideas on the issues, he also comes off pretty bland. He’s a handsome guy with a decent profile. Is he a heavy hitter—or a finesse player?

West Division—Barack Obama
Obama is definitely a media darling. He’s handsome, well-spoken, smoothly dapper, he’s got a hip wife, and now Oprah Winfrey has joined his bandwagon. He was elected to the U. S. Senate in 2004, after eight years as an Illinois state senator. His resume is a tad “lite,” for sure, and there are tons of questions about his ability to lead on the world stage. Fact is, when you think about it, he has not put forth any substantial ideas that have captured the public’s imagination. Like Clinton, he speaks in bodacious platitudes, which sound good on TV but don’t really tell us a thing about his economic or social ideas. Yes, he voted against war funding; what he’d do as chief executive to deal with the war is another matter altogether. He seems to want us to elect him because he’s sincere and younger and change-minded, but those factors have nothing to do with the mechanics of getting stuff done in Washington, especially if you’re going to overhaul the system (which seems unlikely no matter which of the Dems might get in). Being an African American is an interesting thing, but the more exposure he gets, the less people will focus on it seriously (though this fact could hurt Clinton in the primaries, for sure). Obama is not selling snake oil; that said, it is unclear what his product is. Caveat emptor.

Wild Card—Chris Dodd
Dodd is a veteran senator from Connecticut. He seems completely intelligent, sincere about wanting to lead, and passionate in expressing his ideas. He has generally moderate positions about a lot of things, and frankly he probably wouldn’t be a half-bad prez, if only because he’s got a lot of experience and brings a level-headed approach to his candidacy. He’s not connecting on the “sex appeal” factor, but maybe if we listened more we’d find him to be a lot more substantial than Obama, Edwards and Clinton combined. He should be taken seriously, but the superficial stuff hurts him, as unfair as that may be.

Wild Card—Bill Richardson
He’s been a U.S. congressman, ambassador to the UN, secretary of energy and currently the governor of New Mexico. In other words, a career politician whose biggest jobs have been appointments (sorta like Papa Bush). I never find Richardson very articulate or inspiring in the debates. He bumbles his way through and always comes off as pretty forgettable. He seems like a decent guy, who ultimately should best stay put in New Mexico or snap up the next appointment that comes his way. He’s a Democrat foot soldier, not a commander-in-chief.


REPUBLICAN CONFERENCE

North Division—Mitt Romney
Handsome, rich, articulate enough. With a fairly reliable persona as a conservative. He could certainly run on the national ticket that way. But I don’t know how he’s gonna run the gauntlet between Huckabee and Giuliani, unless one of them drops out, which would make positioning himself a lot easier. He looks strong on paper—a viable Republican candidate. But he needs to step up and define himself more. If he had great ideas, no one would care that he’s a Mormon. But if he remains bland, then the religion issue looks like another strike against. (We don’t mind our cultists if it looks like they can lead us to the Promised Land.)

East Division—Rudy Giuliani
He condones gay marriage and abortion. So how can he run the distance as a Republican? Well, he might, if only because his Democratic opponent will share those views and they then become a wash. Giuliani’s had some weird issues besetting his campaign, which deal with judgment. Yet he certainly has an impressive mind where big-picture issues are concerned, and he seems in charge of his presidential persona. Yet he’s on his third wife. Now, I don’t judge a guy for that, and sometimes it just takes a while to get that sort of thing right. But it’s an atypical profile for any presidential candidate, and there are probably some voters who think it “means something.” Lucky in politics, unlucky in love? It sure is weird to see a former mayor of New York City over in the Republican camp, that’s for certain. I think he’s headed for trouble in the primaries. That said, he still seems to be a pretty tough guy. He’s highly intelligent, but the last two presidential elections have shown us where that gets you.

South Division—Mike Huckabee
Welcome, Mr. Happy. It’s all smiles for Huckabee, who’s come out of nowhere to make his mark in presidential politics. He has impressed me as a very controlled speaker who is articulate on some issues. He’s also an ordained Baptist minister. Now, the last Baptist we had in the White House was, like Huckabee, also a governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. And before that, we had a Baptist in Jimmy Carter. So I’ll let you make up your own mind on whether that means anything. I just don’t know about Huckabee. If it walks like an elephant, then I guess it must be a Republican candidate. He’s made inroads because he seems so right-wing and the supposedly rabid Christian right responds to him. Is that a good thing or something to be suspicious about? (It’s killing Mitt Romney, that’s for sure.) Huckabee smiles a lot. He’s almost robotically perfect. Clinton played the saxophone. Huckabee plays bass guitar. A bassist in the White House?

West Division—John McCain
If there’s one Republican candidate who seems to have all the game necessary to win in ‘08, it’s the senator from Arizona. A respected and experienced politician on the national stage, a war hero, a generally strong conservative whose pedigree is tempered with moderate nuance, a sincere speaker, a man of compassion. Why he’s not the runaway frontrunner, though, is a bit of a mystery. He’s 71, which doesn’t help, but it’s unclear whether that’s hurting him much. He appears robust and when you say the words “President McCain,” it has a nice probable ring to it. Whoever is next in the Oval Office has to deal with the infernal Bush War, and McCain inspires confidence in this area. So, why hasn’t his candidacy caught fire?

Wild Card—Fred Thompson
Did Thompson join the race just to say he did? He seems awfully phlegmatic for a guy with huge national recognition and strong party affiliations. He finally looked feisty at that recent travesty of a debate in Iowa. Thompson has some real experience in the Senate and government and a legit conservative pedigree, but he seems sluggish out of the box. Maybe he can emerge out of the pack like some longshot thoroughbred. The problem with that, though, is that his Daily Racing Form numbers say he ought to be a favorite. It doesn’t seem like he wants it much. If he waits till the last furlong it could be too late.

Wild Card—Ron Paul
Full disclosure: I am an admirer of the ideas of Ron Paul. He is the only candidate anywhere with an actual philosophy. He appears to be a man with a tremendous amount of faith in the American system, and his devotion to constitutional principles is fresh and exciting (which kind of makes you wonder which principles have been guiding us up till now). Paul is doggedly consistent in his beliefs, and that’s cool. Whether he’d be flexible enough to run a White House, cajole or strong-arm Congress, and develop the right political allies as president is a concern. Don’t, however, be swayed by the pundits or the reps from the opposing campaigns, who like to talk about Paul’s candidacy as a mere Internet dalliance propped up by teenagers and crackpots. They say that for only one reason: because they’re aware that Paul is developing a unique and serious voting base, one that they most likely can’t get their hands on. Make it clear: Paul didn’t use the Internet to launch his campaign. He was already running when devotees started to use the Internet to spread his message. Fred Thompson should have such an inspired fan base.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Tuesday Morning Quarterback: NFL Week #15 Winners and Losers... with Media Notes

There are five NFC teams still alive for a wild-card berth. The AFC is all but sewn up, though the Tennessee Titans still have an outside chance should Cleveland or Pittsburgh falter. So keep your eyes on the wannabes, and glance occasionally over the Patriots' way, to see if they can nail down that perfect record. After they beat the Dolphins this coming weekend, they'll be 15-0. Their last game is against the Giants, who might very well need to win it to make the postseason.

The scores:

Dolphins 22, Ravens 16—What’s sadder: that it took the 1-13 Dolphins 14 games to gain their first victory, or that the once-proud Ravens (4-10) have now dropped eight in a row? Anyway, events reduced Fins owner Wayne Huizenga to tears and elevated Miami QB Cleo Lemon and little-known WR Greg Camarillo to a kind of dubious folk-hero status. Meanwhile, the Ravens pressed 2006 Heisman Trophy recipient Troy Smith into action, replacing the injured Kyle Boller at quarterback. Ravens LB Ray Lewis fractured his hand.

Texans 31, Broncos 13—In a bar Thursday night, the guy next to me was marveling at second-string Houston QB Sage Rosenfels, who he thought was a rookie or close to it. He was shocked when I informed him that the former Iowa State Cyclone is 29 years old, and that, from 2002-2005, he sat on the bench of the Miami Dolphins, a team that has been desperately seeking a quarterback ever since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season. Rosenfels throws nice passes and he’s got some mobility, and with an assist from RBs Ron Dayne (11-67) and rookie ex-Notre Damer Darius Walker (13-66) he helped the Texans even their record at 7-7. They’re out of the playoffs though, as are the 6-8 Broncos, now full-blown into a transitional phase.

49ers 20, Bengals 13—Another retread QB, Shaun Hill, comes to the rescue with his second straight impressive showing and in his first-ever NFL start (21-28, 197 yards, 1 TD). Hill teams up with TE Vernon Davis for a Maryland Terrapins TD connection. RB Frank Gore’s 138 yards on the ground helps, too. Nevertheless, 49ers can only look at their 4-10 season with a huge sigh. They thought this was a significant year. Maybe it’s next year, though it remains to be seen if injured QB Alex Smith is the answer to a long-held, post-Steve Young prayer. Bengals are 5-9 and have big question marks, especially on defense.

Vikings 20, Bears 13—The win puts the 8-6 Vikings, along with the Giants, in line for a wild-card berth. (If the season ended today...etc.) But the season doesn’t end today, and the Redskins come to Minnesota next Sunday night for a critical matchup. Near as I could tell, the Vikes beat the Bears because the Bears (5-9) are no damn good. Minnesota rookie RB Adrian Peterson did a few things well, but the quarterback situation still looks iffy, and the normally well regarded Vikes defense wasn’t tested by lame-o Chicago. Yet the Vikings are on a five-game winning streak, and their destiny is in their own hands.

Redskins 22, Giants 10—Don’t you love irony? The sorta thuggish, ofttimes sluggish and completely erratic Redskins go through the murder of teammate Sean Taylor, then emerge on the other side as a kind of Cinderella story. Led by aging QB Todd Collins, the Skins deal capably with swirling winds in the Meadowlands, get a kick-ass game from RB Clinton Portis (25-126, 1 TD) and watch Eli Manning throw 34 incomplete passes to defeat the Giants, whose 9-5 record does not yet guarantee them a playoff spot. Skins need more miracles to turn their 7-7 record into postseason gold, including a victory at Minnesota next week and a final home win against the despised and very talented Cowboys. More improbable things have happened. Giants lose TE Jeremy Shockey for the year with a broken leg, the injury looking almost Theismann-like in its intensity.

Eagles 10, Cowboys 6—How quickly things change. The Cowboys having the #1 NFC playoff seed seemed a foregone conclusion, until they dropped this defensive struggle on their home field and find themselves tied at 12-2 with the Packers. Cowboys end the season with two road games (not gimmes—@ Carolina, @ Washington), and if they don’t win out might find themselves heading to the “frozen tundra” for an NFC conference championship game. Tony Romo kinda stunk it up in this one, and the Dallas running game and TO were mostly MIA. Philly RB Brian Westbrook continues to amaze with his grit and versatility, and the Eagles’ defenders played with a motivated passion that was inspiring.

Titans 26, Chiefs 17—That’s seven losses in a row for the 4-10 Chiefs. It’s not a fate they necessarily deserve, but this is the NFL, and even if you have a decent defense and you appear to be trying really hard, if you make mistakes like costly interceptions and badly timed penalties you will lose, even at home against the mysterious Titans. Tennessee QB Vince Young has one of his “up” games, RB LenDale White gains 93 rushing yards, and WR Roydell Williams catches two TD passes, pushing the Titans’ record to 8-6, still with an outside chance at a playoff spot.

Browns 8, Bills 0—There’s football weather, and then there’s football weather. But I’m not sure anybody should have to play in a driving snowstorm. This game was ridiculous, and you can bet the 7-7 Bills would like a “do-over,” especially since their playoff chances ended with the loss. Still, Browns RB Jamal Lewis churned out 163 yards on the ground, and that’s impressive stuff. Browns are 9-5 and poised for the playoffs. They could even still win the AFC North if Pittsburgh falters, yet if they lose strategically, they could be out of it altogether. Their final two games are against teams going nowhere, Cincy and San Francisco.

Jaguars 29, Steelers 22—A blip on the radar screen, or reason for concern? Hard to know, but at least the 9-5 Steelers lost at home to a high-caliber 10-4 Jacksonville squad that looks to be as strong a wild-card entry as you’ll ever see. Actually, Steelers QB Roethlisberger had an okay game (3 TD passes, 0 INTs), and RB Willie Parker gained 100 yards on only 14 carries. So maybe it’s just that the Jags are that good. David Garrard is looking great at QB, “Hall of Fame Freddie” Taylor amasses 147 rushing yards, and the defense comes up big (five sacks, two forced fumbles). Fact is, the Steelers haven’t clinched anything yet. Their final two games are against also-rans, but both are road trips.

Saints 31, Cardinals 24—Saints QB Drew Brees is trying to will his 7-7 team into the playoffs, and with a break or two, it could happen. Brees completed 26 of 30 passes for 315 yards and two TDs, and RB Aaron Stecker gained 95 yards on 22 carries. The 6-8 Cards' playoff hopes have vanished, but the team can still finish at .500; if that happens, first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt can consider the season a mild success.

Chargers 51, Lions 14—Am I the only person who thinks LaDainian Tomlinson is a bore? Avoid his interviews at all costs. He talks yet says nothing, and the idea that he’s another Walter Payton is just...well, silly. Payton had an edge in his discourse. He was polite and thoughtful with the press, but there was a darkness underneath that occasionally slipped out. You could see it in Sweetness’ eyes, and the punishment he meted out to opposing tacklers afforded a deeper kind of insight into his warrior spirit. LT is soft, and a little vacant. He did, however, gain 116 yards on 15 carries with two touchdowns in this blowout of the pathetic Lions (QB Jon Kitna: five INTs), who have gone from 6-2 to 6-8 and out of the playoff picture. Now 9-5, Chargers have wrapped up the AFC West, but it behooves them to keep winning so they can maybe avoid a first-round playoff game against the surging Jaguars.

Panthers 13, Seahawks 10—These teams took a 0-0 tie into the fourth quarter before a “flurry” of scoring. What does it all mean? Panthers elevate to 6-8 behind fourth-string QB Matt Moore and a useful but unspectacular running game, and somehow they are not yet eliminated from playoff contention. Seahawks exhibit abject mediocrity—or simple carelessness—yet are playoff-bound with a 9-5 record. (Now I remember: It means the NFC sucks.)

Colts 21, Raiders 14—There is little to say here. Colts go on the road against a lousy team, phone in a competent performance, pad their record to 12-2 and assure themselves a #2 seed in the playoffs. Raiders, now 4-10, locked in battle with Chiefs for last place in AFC West.

Buccaneers 37, Falcons 3—Most notable item here: Bucs QB Jeff Garcia returned to action after missing two games. Also, for the first time in their checkered 31-year history, the Bucs had someone (Micheal Spurlock) return a kickoff for a touchdown. Strange but true. Bucs now 9-5 with the NFC South crown, and still battling Seattle for the #3 playoff seed. The rudderless Falcons, well...3-11 is not the worst record in the league, but the team completed four (4!) passes the entire game. Back to the drawing board in 2008.

Packers 33, Rams 14—Four sacks and two interceptions on the road for the Pack defense, sometimes overlooked with all the attention on Brett Favre. The Great One keeps on rolling out winning performances and breaking records, and at 12-2 the Packers still have a chance at gaining home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Mike McCarthy for NFC Coach of the Year, right? Steven Jackson gained 143 yards on the ground for 3-11 St. Louis, which made it a game but only for the first half.

Patriots 20, Jets 10—Tom Brady logs a 51.5 quarterback rating, and goes an entire game without throwing a touchdown pass. What gives? Maybe he was as bored as the Pats fans who started throwing snowballs in the fourth quarter. Brady is still four TD passes shy of Peyton Manning’s single-season record of 49, but next week’s home game versus Miami gives him a shot at getting it all in one fell swoop. In case you missed it: Brady is 30, which means that his native ability is now being matched by his commensurately ripened experience, which means he’s peaking. Which means, How do you stop New England? RB Laurence Maroney gained 104 yards, just to remind us that, yes, when they want to focus on that, the Patriots have a running game. Jets fall to 3-11, and there was a Chad Pennington sighting.

Media Notes

  • Ever notice how CBS color commentator Solomon Wilcots is a moron? He’s sort of in the mode of ESPN Radio’s Freddie Coleman. He speaks ungrammatically, says a lot of dumb stuff (then changes his mind and says more dumb stuff), and has a lot of macho/adolescent enthusiasm. He’s definitely an annoyance. Just think: It could be you in that announcing booth. If only you’d played six years in the NFL as a mediocre defensive back and then exhibited absolutely no broadcasting talent.

  • The ESPN “add-on” team of Sal Paolantonio, Steve Young and Emmitt Smith was weak Monday night. Paolantonio kept mispronouncing names and Young was stumbling over his words. Emmitt said less than usual. That’s good, Emmitt. Less is more.

  • I read a blog the other day that claimed that Tony Kornheiser earns $1.8 million for doing “Monday Night Football,” and is paid another $900,000 for doing “PTI.” Let’s assume it’s true: Okay, pardon the interruption while I puke. (I’ll be back in a while: this is gonna be a long one.)

    I can find half a dozen random guys sitting at the bar at Sam’s Place in Nashville that know more about football than Kornheiser. The guy’s an absolute fraud. My favorite is when he tries to manufacture an “original” observation based on a stat or bit of knowledge that he must have squirreled away sometime during the day. He doesn’t know football. Worse, he doesn’t have any intuitive feel for the game as he’s watching it. He only sees obvious blunders and the occasional momentum change, and clearly he has no natural enthusiasm for what’s going on. He’s a slug. Someone dump some salt on him, please.

    Oh, and don’t forget to add in the salary he gets from the Washington Post, which he receives for writing the blandest, most uninspired sports copy you’ll ever see above the level of a college newspaper. Kornheiser joined the Post in 1979 after “starter” stints with Newsday and the New York Times, which automatically accrue to young New York natives (specifically, Long Island) of certain ethnic descent looking for media work.

    Frankly, I don’t even think Kornheiser really likes sports. He likes himself (possibly), and the sound of his own voice, and he’s gone with the sports thing since he got involved with it full-time in the 1980s. If he could’ve been Larry King, he might’ve gone that route. In fact, he spent many years writing piffle for the Post’s “Style” section while also contributing to the sports page.

    But sports has opened up avenues in radio and TV for Kornheiser (ka-ching!), which leads to a torrent of other pertinent questions. Why does a guy who isn’t incisive about what happens on the field get so many opportunities in sports media? Why does a guy with a mushy, wobbly voice get to be on radio? Why does a humorless, odd-looking nebbish of a fellow get to earn millions of dollars a year involved with some of the cushiest television sports opportunities going? (Must be his telegeneity!)

    This is funny. According to Wikipedia, ESPN’s Mike Golic was critical that Kornheiser got the “MNF” job because he wasn’t an ex-athlete. This is especially humorous when you consider that Golic, who was an athlete—if you call being a mediocre defensive lineman on bad football teams athletic—is maybe the most meat-headed, grammar-challenged guy in broadcast sports going. I’ll give this one to Kornheiser: He can talk better than Golic.

    Still, the reasons how and why Kornheiser—a limited-talent non-jock—has been able to grab plum assignments in this current age of mega-sports media remain a mystery. Meanwhile, he’s sending his kids to Ivy League schools (and greasing the way for their Newsday jobs, I suppose). The vicious cycle repeats.

    Life isn’t fair. This we know. But do we have to be reminded every Monday night during football season?
  • Tuesday, December 11, 2007

    The Tuesday Morning Quarterback: NFL Week #14 Winners and Losers... w/ Media Notes

    Truth is, this is maybe the best time of the pro football season. There are a lot of teams still vying for wild-card berths, even teams that don't have a snowball's chance in hell of going anywhere in the postseason even if they do secure a playoff slot. But especially in a year where the Patriots look to be a lock to win it all, it's fun to watch teams like Arizona and Cleveland and Minnesota and Buffalo try to get off their longtime schneids and maybe break into the ranks of the elite. (I'd've added Detroit to the list, but they're in free-fall and disappointing me mightily.)

    Heck, even the Redskins, down one very good safety in the late Sean Taylor, still have a mathematical shot at it, though a brutal closing schedule (@ Giants, @ Vikings, hosting Dallas) makes the feel-better ending a mere dream. No matter. I'm still gonna pull for Todd Collins to make like Rudy.

    The scores:

    Redskins 24, Bears 16—Both starting QBs go down with serious injuries. Bears sub Brian Griese throws critical interceptions, and Skins sub Todd Collins produces miraculous, Tom Brady-like numbers—he’s 36, and hadn’t thrown an NFL pass since 2004—leading stressed-out squad to unlikely victory and still gasping for breath in the wild-card race at 6-7. Bears fall to 5-8 and virtual oblivion.

    Chargers 23, Titans 17—Titans blow 17-3 fourth quarter advantage, and LT catches fire late as Chargers win in overtime. San Diego, 8-5, solidifies AFC West lead, while 7-6 Tennessee has dropped four of its last five and loses footing in the wild-card derby. Hard-hitting affair results in banged-up players on both sides, including Chargers LB Shawne Merriman, who will miss at least a week of action.

    Packers 38, Raiders 7—Brett Favre starts his 250th consecutive game, despite getting knocked out of last week’s game versus Dallas. Pack offense still in gear, with Favre passing efficiently and Ryan Grant amassing 156 yards on the ground. Packers, at 11-2, clinched NFC North title; Raiders anemic all over and drop to 4-9.

    Vikings 27, 49ers 7—Vikings win fourth in a row, moving to 7-6 and into position for a wild-card spot. QB Tarvaris Jackson again plays a poised, error-free game, and RB Chester Taylor gains 101 yards on only 8 carries. Sixth-year journeyman QB (and former Maryland Terrapin) Shaun Hill sees action for the Niners and throws his first-ever regulation game passes, finishing 22-27 for 181 yards and a TD, with no picks. It’s a nice little sidebar item, but San Francisco falls to 3-10 with nothing else to feel hopeful about.

    Bills 38, Dolphins 17—It’s a big story how the 7-6 Bills have overcome injury to position themselves for a possible wild-card berth. They just keep scrapping under head coach Dick Jauron. They did it here with a rookie QB, Trent Edwards, throwing four TD passes, and rookie RB Marshawn Lynch and virtual rookie RB Fred Jackson combining for 222 yards on 38 carries. Jackson’s another cool story. He’s 26, and played his college ball at tiny Division III Coe College in Iowa, and is only this year getting his first shot at NFL action after starring in the United Indoor Football League for the Sioux City Bandits. Meanwhile, the Dolphins fell to 0-13, and their “perfect” season looks in sight.

    Browns 24, Jets 18—Browns move to 8-5 with a big road win, and they’d be in the playoffs if the season ended today. More solid play from QB Derek Anderson, RB Jamal Lewis and WR Braylon Edwards. Four sacks and two INTs don’t hurt, either. Jets put up a fight but fall to 3-10.

    Broncos 41, Chiefs 7—Denver’s second-year QB Jay Cutler posts Favre-like numbers (20-27, 244 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs), while free-agent rookie RB Selvin Young batters a normally sound Chiefs defense for 156 yards on 17 carries. (I’m trying to understand something here: Young played his college ball at Texas. He’s 5’11” and weighs 207 pounds. So far this year, he’s rushed for 569 yards on 100 carries, a 5.7 average. Why is it no one drafted him?? Crazy.) Broncos WR Brandon Marshall also looking all-world, with 10 catches for 115 yards and two TDs. Five sacks, one pick and two forced fumbles also highlight the Denver romp. Poor Chiefs drop their sixth in a row, falling to 4-9. Only six other AFC teams have given up fewer points than the Chiefs this season. But if their D doesn’t suck it up for 60 minutes—a lot to ask of anybody—they have no chance ‘cause the offense, well...the offense just sucks.

    Texans 28, Buccaneers 14—Sage Rosenfels keeps making a case for a first-string job as an NFL quarterback. He’s already played well this season backing up Matt Schaub, but here he goes the distance, completing 27-36 with three TDs, hitting seven different receivers, including Andre Johnson (9-82, 1 TD). Houston is now 6-7, on life support where the playoffs are concerned, but not out of it yet. Bucs don’t completely stink it up, but they miss a chance to lock up NFC South title.

    Saints 34, Falcons 14—Saints trot out old offense of 2006 and look very strong on the road, defeating the woebegone 3-10 Falcons and giving themselves a shot (however long) at overtaking the Bucs for the divisional crown. A wild-card berth is certainly still within 6-7 New Orleans’ grasp, if they keep winning and things fall their way. Aaron Stecker gains 100 yards on the ground while Reggie Bush sits in street clothes wondering if he’s worth all those millions he earns. Saints’ QB Drew Brees puts in vintage performance (28-41, 328 yards, 3 TDs), spreading the ball around to eight different receivers. Chris Redman plays QB for Atlanta and doesn’t look half-bad (23-40, 298 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), unlike the team’s defense, which records no sacks, no interceptions and no forced fumbles. [Sidebar: Michael Vick went to jail today. He’ll be there 18-23 months.]

    Jaguars 37, Panthers 6—With QB David Garrard firmly at the helm and Fred Taylor cranking out 132 rushing yards, the 9-4 Jags affirm they are a force to be reckoned with in the postseason, overwhelming the desperate 5-8 Panthers. Only a complete meltdown can scuttle Jacksonville’s wild-card plans now, but that sort of happened last year. They’ve got two tough road games remaining, at Pittsburgh and at Houston, with a creampuff at home, the Raiders, sandwiched in-between. Carolina is showing nothing, and making it to .500 would be their equivalent to getting to the Super Bowl at this point.

    Colts 44, Ravens 20—This one got so bad that Colts backup QB Jim Sorgi actually saw significant action. Peyton tears up Ravens’ D early and often, and Colts take 37-7 halftime lead, then coast. The Ravens, now a hard-to-believe 4-9—that’s 7 losses in a row—gave all the week prior against New England and simply had nothing left. Also hard to believe: The Ravens recorded no sacks or interceptions and forced no fumbles. Colts rolling at 11-2, and getting healthier too.

    Patriots 34, Steelers 13—This was a game for a while, till Tom Brady sliced and diced the Steelers’ secondary for 399 yards and four TD passes. Moss, Gaffney and Welker proving a potent triumvirate of receivers, and the still undefeated Pats (13-0) do it all without a running game this time around. Steelers, 9-4, do a few things right, like run the football—Willie Parker, 124 rushing yards—but what can you say? They were outclassed. Brady now has 45 TD passes on the season. With three games left, he’s only 4 shy of Peyton’s mark of 49 set in ‘04.

    Seahawks 42, Cardinals 21—The D’s five interceptions and five sacks alone might’ve done it for Seattle, but they also got an outstanding game from QB Matt Hasselbeck (22-33, 272 yards, 4 TDs). Cards mount an aerial attack of sorts, but too many miscues undermine their chance to compete on the road in a critical NFC West matchup. Seahawks, now 9-4, clinch divisional title with this one, while the 6-7 Cards are sent scrambling for a wild-card berth, which is possible but probably a tall order for such an inconsistent bunch.

    Giants 16, Eagles 13—Giants looking strong in the NFC wild-card hunt at 9-4. Almost a lock really. They still need to finish it off, though. They did enough here by going on the road and dispensing with the fading 5-8 Eagles, but they didn’t make it look easy. Eli was...well, he didn’t throw an interception or otherwise shoot himself in the foot, and Plaxico Burress came up big for him with 7 catches, 136 yards and a TD. Giants’ D gets three more sacks. Brian Westbrook yet again gives a heroic performance for Philly (20 carries/116 yards). The guy’s a warrior, is all. McNabb returns to action at QB. Okay, not spectacular. (And why is it I think the Giants will succumb nice and easy in the playoffs to just about anybody?)

    Cowboys 28, Lions 27—That’s five losses in a row for the gutless wonders called the Lions (6-7). Only the winless Dolphins have allowed more points leaguewide than Detroit. Here they relinquish a 27-14 lead despite actually mustering some kind of running game, with Kevin Jones totaling 92 yards and scoring two touchdowns. But they simply couldn’t handle too much Tony Romo (35-44, 302 yards, 2 TDs) and Jason Witten (15 catches, 138 yards, 1 TD). TO kinda silent today, but that’s how good the 12-1 Cowboys are. Hard to realistically see who’s up to stopping them in the NFC. Maybe the Packers. But maybe not. Lions still have a shot at the wild-card, but not playing like this they don’t.

    Bengals 19, Rams 10—Welcome to the game that pitted Cincy QB Carson Palmer against St. Louis QB... Brock Berlin?? A colorless contest, in which the 5-8 team beat the 3-10 team. Even Palmer didn’t do anything (zero TD passes, 2 INTs). We’re glad this one is in the record books.

    Media Notes

    More "Monday Night Football" jabber about Michael Vick (the game was in Atlanta). Okay, he’s going to jail. I hear it’s a camp-type set-up. He’ll get to stroll around. Maybe he can walk the warden’s dogs. Or something.

    Suzy Kolber has a new MNF haircut. Fetching. But why is it I bet there’s an interview in the archives from several years past where Kolber goes something like this:

    “Al, I talked to Falcons owner Arthur Blank before the game, and he told me that Falcons coach Jim Mora told him that all the key players on the offense told him that Michael Vick has emerged as a real leader on this team. Blank said that Mora said that Warrick Dunn said that everyone recognizes what an important role Vick will play in the future of the Falcons’ fortunes on the field and for the city of Atlanta as a whole. Michael Vick has become a real role model and an inspiration to everyone who meets him.” [big heartwarming smile, Suzy!]

    Kolber and her feel-good stories smack of so much bull****. Do we hafta?? Why don’t they fire the sideline distaff crew and give the money to charity. How about to someone in New Orleans?

    Memo to ESPN: Hardcore watchers of MNF do not care about those so-called human-interest air-fillers. We don’t. We just don’t. Get a clue. Dead air is better than hot air.

    Monday, December 10, 2007

    Titans Blow a Big One: Inept Young a Big Reason for Collapse

    The Tennessee Titans blew a big ball game yesterday. Their record fell to 7-6, and their playoff hopes as an AFC wild-card team grew dimmer with the continued success of the Cleveland Browns (8-5) and Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4). The Titans probably need to win their three remaining games, and even then they may need some help to get into the postseason.

    It was bad enough that they lost at home in front of a supportive raucous crowd. It was equally bad that they lost on a day when their defense played inspired football and shut down the sometimes potent San Diego Chargers offense, registering five sacks and three interceptions. The D even kept the lid on LaDainian Tomlinson for most of the game, helping the team grab a 17-3 lead early in the fourth quarter.

    Then, with 7:29 remaining in the game, and still holding a 17-10 lead, the Titans got the ball back. All they had to do was sustain a fairly lengthy drive, get close enough for a field goal, and let Rob Bironas kick them into a 20-10 lead that, barring miracles—and given how the defense was playing—would have secured victory.

    But the Titans could get no closer than the San Diego 46-yard-line, and, with 2:24 remaining in the game, they turned the ball back to the Chargers, who then launched an 80-yard, game-tying drive that culminated in a TD with only nine seconds left in regulation. The game went into overtime, and after each team had a shot at the ball, San Diego took control and LT finished Tennessee off with a 16-yard TD run.

    I don’t blame the defense for this disappointing turn of events. They were fantastic this day. They engaged the Chargers in an incredibly physical battle. True, they yielded 20 straight points in the fourth quarter and overtime, but to say they failed wouldn’t be accurate.

    The Titans’ defense gave the team ample opportunity to close the Chargers out early—if only the Titans had an offense to speak of. After physically pounding Philip Rivers & Co. in the first half, the Titans could only take a 3-0 lead into the locker room. They outmuscled a very good opponent for a very long time, and almost made it to the finish line, except—and I hate to say it—Vince Young suddenly became the real roadblack to success.

    You can’t leave any defense out on the field constantly and expect them to play perfect football. The Chargers were hitting hard themselves, and the game was one of the most physical, even brutalizing contests you’re ever going to see. At one time or the other, the Titans had sent Rivers, TE Antonio Gates and all-world LB Shawne Merriman to the bench with injuries. Merriman never returned in the second half. Various Titans suffered the same fate. But when Vince Young can only move the ball 28 yards, at a stage late in the game when the team needed a more extended drive—to score even three points, to kill a lot of clock, and to give the D some much-needed rest—then you have the reason for the overall failure.

    Time and again, the Titans’ defense gave Young a chance to put points on the board. Time and again, he stalled out. His game stats were 13-21 for 121 yards, with no TDs and two critical, poorly thrown interceptions. Then when it counted most, when a prime-time QB has to play his best, Young couldn’t do squat.

    Unlike other young AFC quarterbacks—Derek Anderson (third year, Browns), Jay Cutler (second year, Broncos), Trent Edwards (rookie, Bills)—Young does not appear to be growing into this job. It seems the NFL has finally caught up to his athletic self. While Young gives clueless responses in his postgame press conference—”We just gotta make plays...our defense played good...I’m not worrying about this game, I’m just thinking about Kansas [City, the Titans next opponent]”—these others are clearly explaining what their offenses are doing and how they are playing within them. Cutler threw four TD passes and no INTs in the 6-7 Broncos’ 41-7 rout of the Chiefs. Edwards also threw four TDs with no picks, as the Bills (now 7-6, and ahead of the Titans in the playoff pecking order) mangled the Dolphins 38-17. Anderson threw two TD passes in the now 8-5 Browns’ 24-18 victory over the Jets.

    Those three teams are the Titans’ main competitors for the final AFC wild-card berth. At the quarterback position, all three look to be in better shape than Tennessee, which plays kick-ass defense and has an improving Jerome Bettis-style runner in LenDale White, but is getting mostly confusion from its stud signal-caller.

    To be a little fairer, it’s true that the Titans apparently have mediocre receivers. But would they be better if Young knew how to run the passing offense with any savvy? He doesn’t look confident in it. He makes the occasional connection, but it’s usually a Chinese fire-drill of a play all-around. He has a quick release and he fires the ball with laser-like speed, but he clearly doesn’t yet know how to “go through his rotations,” as they say, and find secondary targets with any consistency.

    It is interesting to note that Young appears to be well-committed to the idea that he will stay in the pocket and conduct himself like a “conventional” quarterback, not defaulting to Mike Vick-style scrambling. Clearly this is the way to go where his development is concerned, yet ironically, his more free-wheeling approach to his rookie 2006 season seemed to make the offense more productive while taking advantage of his obvious, purely physical gifts.

    It’s a quandary for the Titans: Keep your franchise player reined in as he learns, or let him loose in the interests of potential short-term, and game-winning, results?

    You can see the frustration on Young’s postgame face. We feel his pain. We want him desperately to succeed. Chances of it happening in 2007 headed a little bit further south on Sunday.

    Wednesday, December 05, 2007

    Old News: Money Rules College Football and the Big-Time Universities Are Hypocrites

    There are two recent developments that telegraph a big loud message: Big-time college football is a joke, as are the universities affiliated with it.

    First let’s examine the recent firing of Karl Dorrell as head coach at UCLA. Interesting facts: Dorrell had a 35-27 record in five years, including a 10-2 record in 2005, a huge (and unlikely) upset of rival USC in 2006, and a 24-18 overall conference record. The current squad finished at 6-6 in 2007 and is headed to the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 22 against 10-2 Brigham Young.

    Dorrell, reputed to be a very decent human being, helped push the program in positive directions regarding academics and citizenship and behavioral issues where the student-athletes were concerned. He managed to post an above. 500 record in doing so, and took his team to bowl games each season of his tenure.

    Yet athletic director Dan Guerrero fired Dorrell, citing the coach’s inability to "build this program into a consistent winner, a program that would be in the national discussion on a regular basis."

    Since when isn’t UCLA in the national discussion? It’s one of the best-known schools in the nation. It plays in the Pac 10. It plays a major-league schedule, and it wins the majority of its games. So why, I ask, does Guerrero feel he isn’t doing his job unless he fires Dorrell? What pressures are on Guerrero, and where does that pressure come from? If it comes from above, then exactly who are we talking about? University officials? The college president? The board of regents?

    UCLA is just a case in point. This stuff goes on all the time. Yet once again the question must be asked: Is the tail wagging the dog in American colleges? And just where is the integrity of college academic officials when a man of high character like Dorrell, who ran a competitive program, is fired because...well, presumably because he didn’t get his team in to the BCS and hence earn for the university a lot more money than it’s going to get from the Las Vegas Bowl.

    It’s a good thing that university professors aren’t presented with the same challenge. (“Sorry, Dr. von Braun, you didn’t win the Nobel Prize for physics this year, so we’re going to have to let you go...”)

    If guys like Guerrero aren’t receiving pressure from their academic overlords—though we’re not counting out that possibility—then where does his mind-set come from? Two possibilities: His own warped sense of “success“ and the comparative pressure that comes from his own career goals; or the ubiquitous university boosters, a notorious breed of clown that derives an even more warped sense of self-esteem from seeing the university football team win games and will gladly break NCAA rules if it can get away with it in order to assure that the high-end athletes attend their alma mater.

    Ty Willingham went through this crap at Notre Dame a few years back, and don’t think that current Irish coach Charlie Weis isn’t feeling the pressure of his own recent 3-9 season, no matter how white he is or how much success he had in the pros as an offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots.

    Sure, a college athletic director has every right to want a competitive football program. Karl Dorrell provided that, and he got fired. As in many things, the answers usually lie in following the trail of money. It’s remarkable how silent UCLA’s academic voices are when a man like Dorrell gets the ax. One can only conclude that the college president is in cahoots with Guerrero—in other words, a silent but complicit partner in putting the almighty dollar first, while talking out of the other side of his mouth about integrity, learning and the high character of higher education.

    UCLA’s academic and administrative hierarchy should be ashamed for looking the other way, for allowing a good man to get away, one who was competent and had the integrity we normally have a right to expect of college officials.

    Interesting sidebar: Under former president Gordon Gee, Vanderbilt University managed to maintain its academic standards and sense of personal character and still field a competitive (if always underachieving) SEC football program. Gee recently became the president of Ohio State, where boosters will kill their mothers in order to win football games. One wonders what he’d have to say about recent events at UCLA. Especially since, while at Vandy, Gee administered and enforced a tightening of university control over the athletic program, wherein decisionmaking and policies came down from on high and not from within a system of independently autocratic athletic director-cum-coaches. Let’s see him try that one on Jim Tressel. It’d sure be fun to watch.

    Issue #2 is the BCS. There are so many inequities in this bogus system of determining a national football champion that one can only pine for the days of the AP and UPI polls, where sportswriters and coaches alone determined the final rankings. In that old-school system, there were occasions when two national champions might actually have been crowned. Still, I’d prefer that kind of debate rather than what we’ve got now, which is another system of have/have-not power-centric crap and illogical and/or manipulated bowl matchups designed only to feed the money monster that is the NCAA.

    In the old days, when a #1- and #2- ranked team lost, they moved down the polls, while #3 and #4 moved up. And so, when #1 Missouri and #2 West Virginia lost last weekend, #3 Ohio State moved up to #1, and #4 Georgia...moved down to #5? I don’t get it.

    Georgia—with a record of 10-2—got to #4 by getting on a hot streak and moving logically up in the rankings. They were idle last weekend, as was Ohio State, and should’ve just moved up along with the Buckeyes. Instead, with the aid of BCS computer-generated numbers, LSU, a team that has also lost two games—one to a 7-5 Kentucky! Bad!—vaulted from #7 to #2.

    In other words, in the face of all kinds of hype from scribes and talking heads about LSU’s greatness (uh, two losses, folks, not great), and the stupid computer, Georgia got screwed. So did Mizzou, which defeated Kansas just two weeks ago, but has to sit by and watch the Jayhawks get invited to a prestigious BCS bowl game.

    Meanwhile Georgia gets to play Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl, which maybe might be the real national championship, since Hawaii is 12-0 (the only undefeated ranked team, by the way) and comes from the WAC, the conference that last year produced a Boise State team that defeated Oklahoma in last year’s incredibly exciting Fiesta Bowl.

    Let me try to understand this: Hawaii is a Division I-A school. They are undefeated. They have one of the highest-powered offenses in the history of college football. So when do they, and teams like them, get a chance in a national championship game? The answer? Never, so long as the entire deal is run by schools like Ohio State, Oklahoma, LSU and USC, who do everything in their power to affirm the myth that their programs are the only truly legitimate power programs out there. You could probably program a computer to believe that as well.

    Let’s see, LSU loses two games. Ohio State plays a wimpy Big Ten schedule, loses at home to an Illinois team with three losses (including one to Mizzou) and, by the way, will have been idle for 50 days come the national championship game on Jan. 7. Yet these are the two teams that have wangled their way into the big dance.

    It’s nonsense. Actually, probably the best two teams out there right now are USC and Oklahoma, and if it were the “old days,” when discerning observers got to cast their votes, this might be the matchup we’d get. Instead, the BCS “system” and BS hold sway.

    Now, if you want to pit undefeated Hawaii against spurious #1 Ohio State, that’s a game I’d like to see. As always, the Buckeyes are overrated, and because of the warped system, we’ll never get a chance to know how good these so-called lesser programs have become. (And especially after last year’s Fiesta Bowl, the big programs really don’t want to know.)

    The fact is, you don’t have to be USC or Oklahoma anymore to get stud athletes to come to your school. You can be tiny little Troy State and produce a manhandling defensive behemoth like DeMarcus Ware, now of the Dallas Cowboys. The success of smaller schools, which often require even less on the academic side of things than the noted football factories, poses a definite threat to the big boys. Too bad they don’t have the big balls to take on the little guys.

    This crazy college season all started when Appalachian State beat Michigan in Ann Arbor. But guess what, folks? That wasn’t as big an upset as we first thought. And it’s time for the BCS to re-program the computer.

    Tuesday, December 04, 2007

    The Tuesday Morning Quarterback: NFL Week #13 Winners and Losers... w/ Media Notes

    Before anything, we’d like to congratulate the Miami-Dade police department and its director Robert Parker for their swift work in apprehending the apparent killers of Sean Taylor. We were snidely critical of their theorizing earlier last week, and we were premature in our judgment and just flat-out wrong in leveling any criticism. The entire Taylor story is a sad one from its beginning, and now, apparently, to its eventual end, which will include prosecution of teenagers in a very sorry and tragic affair. We urge your prayers for the deceased, the families involved, and the eventual rehabilitation of the wrongdoers. And let’s hope we never have to write about such events again.

    The games:

    Patriots 27, Ravens 24—A fabulous Monday night game, in which the psyched-up Ravens let a big one get away. But credit the Pats, now 12-0 and poised to make NFL history: Even when they are seriously challenged, they may bend, but they never break, and they always make the key plays. Ravens fall to 4-8, squandering a marvelous performance by RB Willis McGahee and an almost heroic effort by QB Kyle Boller. In a game filled with what-ifs, it was the Patriots who had the answers.

    Bills 17, Redskins 16—Rather than see the death of Sean Taylor as a reason to be down, the Redskins looked like they were using it to inspire them. But their offense fizzled after taking a 16-5 lead, and a Joe Gibbs procedural gaffe calling timeouts at the end gave the Bills an opening to kick a game-winning field goal. Sad: Skins defense yields only five FGs, but it’s not good enough. Bills now 6-6, and hinting at wild-card eligibility. Skins drop to 5-7, and the lost season continues (though amazingly they're not out of it mathematically yet).

    Cowboys 37, Packers 27—The big showdown between NFC strongmen becomes another affirmation of QB Tony Romo’s talents and the 11-1 Cowboys’ general balance. Brett Favre gets injured and sub Aaron Rodgers actually looks pretty good as Pack make a game of it. At 10-2, Green Bay still in solid control of a #2 playoff seed, but they better watch out for oncoming Seattle and Tampa Bay.

    Colts, 28, Jaguars 25—A competitive game that tells us that both of these teams are playoff-ready. Peyton makes big third-down plays to hold off the determined Jags, who, at 8-4, confirmed that they are probably the best wild-card team in the AFC and are capable of challenging anyone once the postseason begins. Colts hike record to 10-2, and are playing well even while still waiting for injured players to return to action.

    Cardinals 27, Browns 21—Depending on how you view the last play of this game, the 7-5 Browns maybe should be 8-4. (It looked like a touchdown to me.) So Cleveland misses a close one on the road, but Romeo Crennel’s Cinderella squad is still squarely in the AFC wild-card race. With the Lions dropping another one, the 6-6 Cards suddenly look like viable wild-card competitors. History isn’t on their side, but the general mediocrity of the NFC is.

    Buccaneers 27, Saints 23—Bucs continue to surprise and raise record to 8-4 behind sub QB Luke McCown (29-37, 313 yards, 2 TDs) and the running of Earnest Graham (22 carries, 106 yards, 1 TD). McCown connects with 10 different receivers in the game, including 7 passes to ageless Joey Galloway for 159 yards. Saints, now 5-7, mount a limited offense against tough Tampa Bay D and blow a home-game opportunity to vault back into the NFC South race.

    Giants 21, Bears 16—Bears looked to be taking this one to the Giants physically and entered fourth quarter with a 16-7 lead. Yet despite average numbers, Eli Manning leads New York to two late scores, helped immensely by Derrick Ward’s 154 yards rushing. Manning threw two INTs, and looked shaky, but somehow his team surged to 8-4, still clearly leading the wild-card pack in the NFC. Bears fall to 5-7, last in the NFC North, but the way everyone else is playing, they’re not out of it yet.

    Steelers 24, Bengals 10—Just another game on the ugly Heinz Field turf, as the 9-3 Steelers continue their AFC North dominance, now 5-0 in the division and undefeated (7-0) at home. Bengals surprisingly limp offensively and drop to 4-8. Steelers travel to New England next.

    Vikings 42, Lions 10—With their third consecutive victory, the Vikings surged to 6-6 and are making noise in the NFC wild-card race. Rookie Adrian Peterson returned from injury and, along with Chester Taylor, ran roughshod over the fading Lions, while QB Tarvaris Jackson put in another strong showing. Lions, once 6-2, fell to 6-6 and look headed for Palookaville. They have no running game and no defense, and Jon Kitna is not Brett Favre.

    Titans 28, Texans 20—Given the competition, it’s hard to know what this game means for the Titans, who broke a three-game losing streak and hiked their record to 7-5. The 5-7 Texans scrap all right, but they have a habit of fading, which is what happened here, even though statistically it was a very even battle. Vince Young’s numbers respectable (21-31, 248 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), and Titans get some late running heroics from Chris Brown. Still, not a dominating performance from a team with playoff aspirations.

    Seahawks 28, Eagles 24—A very nice road win for the 8-4 Seahawks, who used a balanced offensive attack and took advantage of four A. J. Feeley interceptions to subdue the Eagles. Brian Westbrook tries, but he can’t do it all alone for Philly, who fell to 5-7 on the heels of last week’s courageous effort against the Patriots. There are currently eight NFC teams at 5-7 or 6-6, and one of them is due for a wild-card berth, so the Eagles are still in the hunt.

    Jets 40, Dolphins 13—Poor Fins make 3-9 Jets look like world-beaters. Even recording 6 sacks and an interception, Miami can’t hold the score under 40. Partly because Dolphins QB John Beck threw three picks, and the Fins’ running attack is almost invisible. Miami, now 0-12, travels to Buffalo this week to try to get that elusive first win.

    Panthers 31, 49ers 14—Carolina breaks a five-game losing streak and records its first home win, moving to 5-7 behind QB Vinny Testaverde, RBs DeAngelo Williams and DeShaun Foster (combined 140 yards on 38 carries), and a defense that records 6 sacks and 4 interceptions. Niners look just like the 3-9 team they are, which is not very good at anything.

    Chargers 24, Chiefs 10—Chargers up record to 7-5, good enough for a two-game lead in the AFC West. Pretty close till the end, however. LaDainian Tomlinson reasserts his superiority with 177 rushing yards on 23 carries with 2 TDs, and the Chargers’ D records 8 sacks and 3 INTs. San Diego QB Philip Rivers still struggling statistically. Chiefs fall to 4-8 and heading nowhere fast.

    Rams 28, Falcons 16—Practically pointless game between two 3-9 also-rans sees Rams QB Gus Frerotte throw for 311 yards and three TDs, while his Falcon counterparts, Joey Harrington and Chris Redman, chalk up 356 yards and two TDs. Both running attacks crank out decent yardage also. Rams record four sacks and two interceptions and hold off Falcons’ late rally.

    Raiders 34, Broncos 20—Is it historical that both McCown brothers started and won NFL games on the same day? Luke led the Bucs to victory while Josh threw three TDs against the Broncos, helping the Raiders to a 4-8 record and thus doubling last year’s win total. Justin Fargas keeps running strong for Oakland, gaining 146 yards on 33 carries. Broncos’ attack sputters behind ineffective Jay Cutler, and Denver falls to 5-7, two games behind San Diego in the AFC West. Rookie QB JaMarcus Russell made his NFL debut for Oakland with 4-7 for 56 yards.

    Media Notes

    Am I the only person who’s noticed what a kick-ass football analyst Steve Young is? One almost feels bad for Emmitt Smith, who has to sit next to Young on the ESPN “Monday Night Football” telecast during the pregame, halftime and postgame sit-down with Sal Paolantonio. Emmitt seems like a nice guy, but he flounders his way through his words and thoughts, and he ends up pretty much parroting what his colleagues say. He could run and he can dance, but Emmitt’s just not an articulate guy. (Sorry, Emmitt.) Meanwhile, Young offers fabulous insight and fearlessly wades in with the kinds of questions that any serious fan is considering. Young’s assessment of the Ravens’ meltdown against the Patriots was spot-on—Boller shouldn’t have thrown that pass, the Ravens couldn’t sustain their running attack despite Willis McGahee’s obvious success through three quarters, and exactly who did insist on that timeout just before the Ravens’ D stopped the Patriots on 4th-and-short? Young has a knack for getting to the important issues quickly, and he renders his opinions with passion and incisiveness.

    Allow me to contrast Young’s skills with Ron Jaworski’s in-game macho blustering in the booth (which is getting very tired fast) and Tony Kornheiser’s essential uselessness as the MNF Borscht Belt funnyman (who, lets face it, doesn’t really make anyone laugh but himself and adds nothing to the telecast).

    Hall of Fame coach Don Shula visited the booth last night, and he was sharp, picking up on the Boller INT and making the good point that any other choice the Ravens’ QB could have made on that play would have been smarter. (It might be added, however, that Boller probably didn’t call that play. Nevertheless, it was hard to know what he was doing with that throw into heavy traffic. It can be argued that that was the beginning of the end for the home team.)

    Also, I’m liking Bill Parcells’ contribution to the ESPN pregame studio chatter. He knows what he’s talking about and he delivers his commentary with refreshing directness.

    So how come there are so many lousy ex-jocks on the air when there are apparently some decent ones to choose from?

    Friday, November 30, 2007

    It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Watch Baseball...and Oprah

    I suppose it was inevitable. I’m now officially a socialist.

    As we descend into heavy-duty holiday mania and parse our way through Charlie Brown’s depressing Christmas commercialism, I’m feeling the residual effects of being too sensitive, and knowing too much about too many things.

    For example, sports media’s (and especially ESPN’s) obsession with Alex Rodriguez’ new $275 million contract made me want to puke about as much as the size of A-Rod’s annual payout on his lengthy deal. Then we heard about Mariano Rivera signing a three-year, $45 million contract. That’s $15 million a year for a relief pitcher who works about 50 days in a season that lasts from April to October. Rodriguez and Rivera’s New York Yankees teammate, catcher Jorge Posada, also recently signed a four-year contract worth $52 million. You can’t say the Hispanics aren’t cashing in on Americano lucre.

    Happy holidays. Feliz Navidad. Screw these guys.

    While the hot air rises from Hillary, Barack, Rudy, Mitt—can anyone actually envision us having a prez named “Mitt”? Or “Rudy”? Or “Hillary”? Or “Barack”?—the War in Iraq is running at a cost now of $470 billion, according to the National Priorities Project (http://nationalpriorities.org). Then I heard some ghastly figure on the news the other day about American financial aid to Afghanistan (exact amount escapes me, but I want to say $10 billion).

    Then I did some checking. According to the 2007 Statistical Abstract/The National Data Book, we gave Afghanistan $2.03 billion in economic and military aid in 2004, up from a mere $88 million in 2001. That’s my money. And yours. And YOURS. (Yeah, you, over there.)

    As my brother likes to say: “The terrorists won.” And guess what? He’s absolutely right. And I don’t like to fly anymore, either.

    Here are the aggregate figures for American foreign economic and military aid in the recent term:

    2001—$16.7 B
    2002—$20.7 B
    2003—$27.3 B
    2004—$33.4 B

    Apparently, it takes a while for the statistical folks to catch up to all of this. So doing a little logical projecting, we can put the 2007 figure at close to $50 billion. THIS DOES NOT INCLUDE THE WAR.

    What the f**k??? The money is there to resolve all our major issues, but we’re in the business of giving a huge chunk of it away to other countries.

    Meanwhile, someone is doing nicely with the war, but it ain’t me. Most likely, it’s not you, either.

    We’ve got baseball players and other athletes earning millions—BIG millions. It’s gross how cushy they have it. In a nutshell: it’s unfair. They don’t DESERVE what they get. So here’s a plan: Tax the f*** out of ‘em. Stop taxing cigarettes and grocery items. Tax the f*** out of high-paid athletes—and anyone else earning a million dollars a year—and don’t bat an eye about the threat that poses to free enterprise.

    We send $50 billion a year overseas. We’re halfway to a trillion dollars on the war. Yet we’re locked in an endless national debate on funding health care for our citizens, we’re wringing our hands about the fate of Social Security, bridges collapse in Minnesota because the infrastructure needs tending, foreclosures are up, and there are actually people in this country who think it’s okay to issue driver’s licenses to illegals who are already sucking our tax system dry simply by being here in the first place.

    It’s all bull****.

    I generally consider myself a free-market guy. That would be ideal. But sometimes things get out of hand, and to just stand by and watch all the crap happen, in the name of capitalism, is just stupid.

    Frankly, I don’t care about the theoretical purity of the free-market system when guys who throw little white baseballs for a living earn $25 million a year, while average Joes lose their homes, can’t afford to go to the doctor, and can’t even afford cigarettes (which admittedly are unhealthy, but for some poor slobs are the only pleasure they have in their humdrum, unfortunate lives). Irony upon irony: Those Marlboros are also taxed these days at an ungodly rate, to help swell the public coffers and to pay the salaries for public officials who pass legislation outlawing smoking in restaurants. I mean, really, if it’s such a reprehensible drug, why not simply outlaw tobacco altogether in the sincere interests of public health? Because it’s a cash cow, that’s why. Hypocrisy, hypocrisy.

    Memo to all the windy, cowardly politicians running for president: Stop futzing around and solve the problems. Tax the f*** out of the grossly overpaid jocks and sports executives and media millionaires and Silicon Valley geeks and hedge-fund managers, and yes, even yourselves if you qualify. And Oprah. Go get her money too. I don’t care if these folks are already paying out at a high tax rate. They’re also starting “foundations” with which they can hide their money and dodge taxes. They all live in America where they’ve been able to rape the land. Now let’s go get some of that money back to solve our problems. I don’t care if Bill Gates has been generous with his millions. (Thanks, Bill.) Now go take more of his money. Levy a one-time luxury tax on all these lucky bastards, put it all into a pot, and redistribute our way into solvency and sound fiscal footing on the national scale. And throw in health care for all, while you’re at it.

    And, oh yeah, all you windbag posturing politicos who refuse to offer any substantial and tangible remedies for America, for fear that you’ll offend various voting blocs: Suck it up or get out of the race. Don’t agonize that we’ll be penalizing the rich. You can call it a penalty. I call it fairness. I call it balancing the scales. I call it making it right for the majority of people forced to live in this country where a 9% sales tax on food robs them of their earning power, while the same 9% tax means nothing to the SUV-driving, gas-guzzling fatcats. A loaf of bread isn’t available on a sliding scale. It costs the same for Oprah as it does for me and you. Yet she can afford to pay 100% tax on her food. So make her. The war, after all, is being fought to preserve her way of life, and she’s got a bigger way of life to protect. Give her a bigger bill. A MUCH bigger bill.

    Of all people, Jimmy Carter said it best a few years ago: The single potentially most destructive reality in modern America is the widening gap between rich and poor. Why? Because the escalating cost of food and health care and gasoline are killing middle-class aspirants while affecting the Oprahs and the A-Rods not a bit. What incentive do the rich have to care about how tax money is collected via higher sales taxes, or the everyday impact of rising gas prices, when it doesn’t mean squat to them? They are immune. Besides, if you harvested 50% of their net worth, they’d still be fatcats. They still wouldn’t have to care about the things we hoi-polloi care about, yet we’d have the chance to improve the lives of the majority. Which is not too much to ask. Who can forget George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life:

    “Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”

    (These are also the people who, like so many lemmings, watch Oprah. And A-Rod.)

    According to Baseball-Reference.com, Barry Bonds has earned $188 million during his baseball career. That is just his salary. It does not include any outside endorsements or media appearances, both of which have surely paid him handsomely on top of his grotesque annual paychecks. It was this same rabble who paid him. For playing baseball. And he cheated in the end with steroids. F*** him.

    Yep, it all sounds socialistic. And it is. But at least it’s not communistic. It’s not fascistic, either. Just think of the plan as yet another American entitlement program, of which there have been many. Like Homeland Security. Only this way, the money gathered from the grossly rich gets targeted to address big-ticket items that will benefit the majority.

    Of course, there are other ways to approach it, while allowing Oprah to keep all her ill-gotten gains: Cut all war funding and withdraw all foreign aid.

    Don’t let anyone ever tell you that it can’t be done. That we can’t fix what ails us. We can. The money is there to do it. What we really lack is courage, of the kind we are not getting from the majority of the political candidates.

    We are not in a time suited to wimps who refuse to make commitments to ideas or are afraid of ruffling voters’ feathers. Yet that’s what we’re getting in the so-called frontrunners. F*** them, too.

    If the pursuit of happiness is a mandate of the framers, then what’s wrong with taking steps to assure that a majority of Americans get a little closer to that?

    The means are there to achieve it. But the cahones, so far, are not.

    Oh yeah. Season’s Greetings.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007

    CSI Miami Cast Takes Over Taylor Investigation

    Citing the already demonstrated incompetence of the Miami-Dade police department, members of the cast of CBS’ popular crime show CSI Miami have stepped in to take control of the investigation into the recent shooting death of pro football player Sean Taylor.

    After being informed that Miami police chief Robert Parker has ruled out premeditated foul play in the case, series star David Caruso (left) said, “Well, that... is simply...ridiculous...” Caruso paused pregnantly after every phrase, his face frozen in seething but controlled agitation, his lips slightly pursed, his eyes beady. “A random burglary?” continued Caruso. “I think not. I’ll have my team on this immediately, and we...will...FIND...Sean Taylor’s murderers. We...will...find...them...and bring them to justice...with all the forensic powers that our team can bring to bear on the case...We ...WILL...do it...or my name isn’t Horatio Caine.”

    When reminded that his name, in fact, isn’t Horatio Caine, Caruso paused, stared for an agonizing 10 seconds at his questioner, then slowly, deliberately placed his sunglasses over his eyes, adjusting them smartly, and said, “...and I’ll see you...in hell.”

    Actress Emily Procter, left, who portrays babelicious forensic investigator Calleigh Duquesne on the longtime hit series, said flatly, woodenly, with staccato tension but also with a slight sexy lilt in her voice, “I don’t see why we wouldn’t move this crime to the top of our ‘to-do’ list. This is what we’re here for, after all. Obviously, that’s a fertile crime scene, and where’s there’s gunshot residue, blood spatter and signs of a struggle, then the answers are just sitting there waiting for CSI criminalists like myself to fit the pieces into a coherent puzzle.”

    When reminded that she is merely an actress who portrays a forensic expert, Procter said, “Ask me if I care. Crime is crime, and don’t let anyone ever say that CSI Miami doesn’t investigate each and every case bringing to bear the highest levels of modern science and technology.” Procter reached into her purse, extracted a pair of white rubber gloves, and added, “This is in our jurisdiction, and we’ll bring the scum to justice. Why? Because we can. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to head out to Palmetto Bay before the amateurs taint all the evidence.”

    Palmetto Bay is the elite community south of Miami where Taylor made his home. Taylor, who played for the Washington Redskins, was brutally gunned down in his bedroom this past Monday and died a day later from massive blood loss.

    Adam Rodriguez, left, who portrays investigator Eric Delko on CSI Miami, said that he hadn’t emigrated from Cuba and toughed his way into his police career just to watch cases like this one get thwarted by Parker and his incompetent detectives. “Miami is my city, and I care what happens here. We’ll get the Taylor killers. I’ve got my ear to the ground in this town. People talk, and when they do, I’ll be connecting the dots. The evidence will tell us the rest. With DNA testing and our access to AFIS, we’ll nail this one.”

    Rodriguez was reminded that the Delko character’s journey from Havana to Miami was strictly a fictional profile, available to anyone accessing the TV show’s website. “Huh,” he scoffed, his face deadpan. “Well, that’s what you say...” Checking to make sure his shirt was neatly tucked in, and then adjusting his immaculately coiffed hair, Rodriguez was heard to say, “Hey, Calleigh, wait up for me...”

    When asked for comment on the role CSI Miami cast members would play in the Taylor case, Parker said, “Well, we need all the help we can get. Who’s to say that Caine and his team won’t bring some success to the investigation that might otherwise elude us? Besides, I want to see the reenactment, in slow motion, of when the bullet exits the gun and then excruciatingly and violently pierces Taylor’s upper thigh and then destroys his femoral artery. That should be pretty cool. Gross, but cool.”

    SMA Notebook: Swin Cash Fouls the Air at ESPN, and Nonsense from the Miami Police in the Sean Taylor Slaying

    ESPN is at it again. Hiring unqualified TV personalities.

    Tonight’s viewing brought me my first encounter with the inimitable Swin Cash. Who you ask? (Yeah, that’s what I said.) I wandered into ESPN’s “NBA Fastbreak,” a show that plays game highlights while so-called experts—read: ex jocks who have no business being in front of a camera—rattle on inanely.

    I had no idea who Swin Cash was. I saw her sitting on the ESPN news dais—next to the Lurch-like Kiki Vandeweghe—and then she opened her mouth. She has an awful voice, somewhere between a witch’s cackle and an indecipherable high-pitched wheeze. She can’t enunciate clearly. She gulps and giggles self-consciously, and the only thing she apparently knows to say are cliches—the most obnoxious, dumbass cliches that ever came out of Crash Davis’ notebook.

    If you’re thinking that Cash (pictured, left, out of uniform) comes to ESPN from a Mass Comm program at an esteemed American university, guess again. (And of course that’s the problem.) Cash plays for the Detroit Shock of the WNBA (which explains why I’d never heard of her). She’s a nice-looking young lady, and apparently she’s a very good basketball player. She’s terrible on-air. A joke, really. And unlike the thousands of college grads and local working sports analysts looking for big jobs with ESPN, you can bet that Swin didn’t have to submit a video of her previous work.

    No, this is how it goes: Be a jock. Be a black jock. Be a black female jock. Have no broadcasting experience. Be an embarrassment to the profession of sports announcing. Then get offered a chance to launch your eventual post-jock career at the highest level, because, supposedly, since you played the game—and because you fit affirmative action niches, black and/or female—then you must serve some purpose to ESPN’s manipulative hiring needs.

    Swin Cash. One more reason for university Mass Comm departments everywhere to shut their doors. What’s the point when you can’t get a job anyway and when all you might be is qualified?

    So Swin Cash got a job. Then did someone lose theirs? No, wait. ESPN created a job for her, maybe. Well, for ESPN, Swin Cash, and us, it’s Win/Win/Lose. (She’s really bad. Trust me.)

    Random Burglary?

    Robert Parker, left, Miami-Dade police director, announced on Wednesday that the investigation into the brutal slaying of the NFL’s Sean Taylor is, for the moment, ruling out the possibility that Taylor knew his attacker. Parker stated that no evidence for now points to that eventuality, and instead the police will focus on the notion of a random burglary.

    Now, this is crazy, right? Ex-college teammates of Taylor, such as Antrel Rolle of the Arizona Cardinals, have gone on record as saying that Taylor had enemies. Rolle also was quoted as saying there was no way the incident was a random act.

    So, either the Miami PD are announcing this as part of an elaborate ruse to elicit information from potential informants, or they’re inept. Or stupid.

    Now, if the MPD actually follow the random burglary scenario, then you can already chalk this one up as “unsolved.” Everyone knows that with every passing second, murder cases become harder to investigate and hence tougher to prosecute.

    I’ll lay odds—10 to 1—that Taylor’s assailant will never be apprehended. I wonder what Vegas bookmakers would say.

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007

    R.I.P. Sean Taylor: A Sad but All Too Familiar End for an African American Athlete

    The death of Sean Taylor. It’s like deja vu all over again.

    About a year ago we were mourning the violent death of the Denver Broncos’ Darrent Williams, shot in a drive-by.

    Ranting about this stuff seems pointless.

    But it’s hard not to reflect on the upshot of it all. So many things come to mind.

    Reality check:

    1. Why does it ring false to me when Taylor’s teammates talk about how he “turned his life around” upon the birth of his daughter? Sorry. I became a father fairly early in life, though not as early as Taylor. Unprepared fatherhood is not a good thing. While we hope that 24-year-old men will accept with all good graces the responsibility of fatherhood, it doesn’t always happen. Just because Taylor fathered a child does not mean he’d turned his life around. Taylor was sleeping with his girlfriend—the mother of his child we presume—and his daughter was sleeping nearby, when the intruder came right into Taylor’s bedroom (so we are told). I hope that Taylor loved his daughter. But we have no evidence besides hearsay to believe that this was an optimal situation for the young athlete.

    2. Taylor supporters have already responded that his past behavioral troubles, socially and with the law, should have no bearing on how we perceive his death. How naive is that? Off the field, Taylor had scrapes over drunk driving, assault and weapons possession. (This from the son of a Florida police chief.) On the field, he was fined multiple times for unnecessarily brutal hits and for spitting in the face of an opponent. Alas, Taylor’s track record is that of a thug. Sorry. That’s the fact, plain and simple. Besides which, we would be particularly naive if we ignore the track record of many other highly paid African American athletes (Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson, etc., etc.). If Taylor's past associations have nothing to do with his death, then fine. If he was truly taking life more seriously and less thuggishly, that is to his credit for sure. But it's hard to swallow easily the notion that this was strictly a random act of violence perpetrated against a wealthy man by a burglar.

    3. Eight days prior to his shooting, Taylor’s home was vandalized. Supposedly, the criminals left a knife on his bed. WTF...? Okay, WHY would someone do that? It makes me think of that scene in The Godfather, when the mobsters leave a horse’s head in the bed of the Hollywood mogul. It just sounds like some weird kind of “message” thing, its significance known only to members of the brotherhood. Scary. And real weird. And totally foreign to most of us.

    4. The entire shooting incident requires comprehensive investigation. Such as, like, why does Taylor keep a machete nearby in his bedroom? What was his relationship with his girlfriend? What were his financial associations? What exactly did the (as yet unnamed) girlfriend see? What did she know about his friends and enemies? Did he have a home security system? Was it in working order? If yes, why was it so easily compromised?

    Too bad Taylor hurt his knee a couple of weeks ago. If he hadn’t, he’d’ve been with his teammates in Tampa, playing the Bucs. And maybe then, after the game, Taylor would’ve flown back to D.C. with the Redskins. The fortunes of fate.

    Taylor’s life will now be scrutinized more closely, I suppose. Whether that will uncover the culprit(s) who killed him is another matter. The thug system has shown an amazing capacity for getting away with murder. Darrent Williams' killer has never been apprehended. The success rate for convictions in cases like this isn’t very good, mainly because African Americans don’t snitch. Al Capone and his gangland friends from the 1920s woulda been proud.

    R.I.P. Sean Taylor. Your promise was deeper than your achievement.

    The Tuesday Morning Quarterback: NFL Week #12 Winners and Losers

    Once as a kid, watching pro football with my Dad, I heard him say something like this: “Does it really matter who your running back is? Seems to me if your offensive line is in synch and blowing out big holes in the defense, that any reasonably talented runner could gain 100 yards a game.” I think he had a point. Matter of fact, I think Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan and Mike McCarthy and Herman Edwards would agree completely.

    Shanahan’s Broncos have been changing running backs like underwear in the past decade, yet adhering to disciplined blocking schemes seems to net them 100-yard performances no matter who’s carrying the ball. In the past two games, Broncos running back Andre Hall, an undrafted rookie free agent from South Florida who no one ever heard of, has stepped up to replace big-money off-season free-agent acquisition Travis Henry and has netted 187 yards on 33 carries. After losing Larry Johnson to injury and then Priest Holmes to retirement, the Chiefs’ Edwards turned this weekend to 5th round rookie draftee Kolby Smith out of Louisville. He gained 150 yards on 31 carries. McCarthy’s Packers had no running game at all this year. Then they put in nobody Ryan Grant, who had carried the ball only six times in the team’s first six games. Now he’s got 494 yards on 107 carries, including three 100-yard games out of the past five.

    As for the 11-0 Patriots, they’ve got a high-priced stud in Laurence Maroney, who’s gained 467 yards on 105 carries in 2007. But they’ve also got the tandem of lesser-knowns comprising Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, Kyle Eckel and Heath Evans, who have combined for 777 yards on 191 carries, a 4.1 average, and offer solid proof of dear ol’ Dad’s theory.

    Barry Sanders, O.J.Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, Curtis Martin, Tiki Barber. All great runners with one thing in common: None ever won the Super Bowl.

    It’s all about blocking and teamwork. Don’t ever forget it.

    The scores:

    Bears 37, Broncos 34—A tremendously entertaining game in which the Broncos blow a 14-point fourth-quarter lead then lose it in overtime. They also kept daring Devin Hester to return kicks for the Bears; so he obliged by returning two for TDs. The win fueled the Bears’ hopes for a wild-card slot (still pretty iffy at 5-6) and cost 5-6 Denver a share of the AFC West lead. Speaking of running backs, the Bears’ Cedric Benson sustained an injury that will require season-ending surgery. With his 3.4 yards-per-carry average, Benson has remained a bust: a #1 draft choice in 2005 who was burned out when he arrived in Chicago after playing four incredibly full college years at Texas. He’s injury-prone to boot, and this’ll force the Bears to go another direction. Maybe give rookie scatback Garrett Wolfe a shot at it.

    Bengals 35, Titans 6—The Titans defense has totally collapsed without injured DT Albert Haynesworth, but can one guy actually make that much of a difference? The team’s three-game losing streak has also been marred by poor running, receivers with stone hands and a clearly frustrated Vince Young. At 6-5, they’re losing steam in the wild-card race, and they look uninspired. Bengals regained some of their offensive rep with huge games from Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson. They’re now 4-7, still with little hope for the postseason, but they could rattle some cages down the stretch for sure.

    Patriots 31, Eagles 28—Eagles claim title as best 5-6 team in the league with a heroic effort on the road against all-world undefeated Pats (11-0). Eagles backup QB A. J. Feeley proves that Pats’ D can be exploited, which should be a valuable lesson for the rest of the teams on New England’s schedule. But even a hepped-up, well-schemed Philly defense couldn’t shut down all the offensive options at Tom Brady’s command. Helluva game, though.

    49ers 37, Cardinals 31—Losing at home, in overtime, on a Kurt Warner fumble in their own end zone, is not what the Cards needed. They fell to 5-6, now two games behind the NFC West-leading Seahawks. They’re still in the wild-card hunt (like of a lot of NFC mediocrities), but they hurt themselves badly with this one, in which Warner racked up almost 500 yards passing but made more mistakes than his counterpart, Niners journeyman Trent Dilfer. Frank Gore gains 116 yards rushing for San Francisco, now 3-8 after breaking an eight-game losing streak.

    Browns 27, Texans 17—The 7-4 Browns take a serious step toward total respectability and the playoffs with strong home showing. Offense clicking on all cylinders, including RB Jamal Lewis, who amasses 134 yards rushing. There are still questions about the Cleveland defense, but the team looks capable of hanging with just about anybody. Texans play hard but just can’t keep up, and are now 5-6, in last place in the AFC South.

    Vikings 41, Giants 17—The story here is New York QB Eli Manning, who threw four INTs, three of which were returned for TDs. Vikings RB Chester Taylor had some moments in his role as replacement for injured Adrian Peterson, and even struggling Vikes QB Tarvaris Jackson played error-free ball and threw a big TD pass to WR Sidney Rice. With the exception of four sacks, Giants look lame-o at home and fall to 7-4 but still have a good leg up in the wild-card race. Vikings move to 5-6 with second consecutive win.

    Buccaneers 19, Redskins 13—Skins join the 5-6 crowd with their third straight loss. They knocked Bucs QB Jeff Garcia out of the game early, and still couldn’t capitalize. While Tampa Bay floundered offensively behind sub QB Bruce Gradkowski, Skins QB Jason Campbell continued to build his resume as “really gifted young quarterback who amasses impressive stats and then throws untimely and ill-advised passes that become interceptions that spell defeat.” (Skins now also trying to deal with loss of safety Sean Taylor, who was shot at his Miami home yesterday and was in critical condition as of this writing.) Surprising Bucs are now 7-4, tops in the NFC South. Winning ugly is still winning.

    [Update: Redskins safety Sean Taylor died early this morning. He was 24 years old. Besides the tragedy, it's a very strange story that requires close investigation. How could an intruder make his/her way to Taylor's bedroom unannounced and undetected? No security system?? Unfortunately, it's not going to be easy to dismiss this as a random act of violence. God's grace on Taylor and his family.]

    Saints 31, Panthers 6—As Panthers’ head coach John Fox says, “We’re not playing very good football.” Brilliant assessment. Their running game has vanished (43 net yards), the QB problems are immense, and five losses in a row move them from 4-2 to 4-7. They lost at home, too, where they are now 0-5 on the season. Saints improve to 5-6, two games behind the division-leading Bucs. They used a committee approach to their running game to net 113 yards, but it’s Drew Brees’ passing that’s keeping the team’s playoff hopes alive. Saints dominate time of possession by almost 2-to-1.

    Seahawks, 24, Rams 19—Rams blow a 19-7 halftime lead, and lose QB Marc Bulger to injury, which puts backup Gus Frerotte in position to fumble away the team’s last-second chances on fourth-and-goal. Rams get some decent running from Steven Jackson (90 yards), as well as five sacks and an INT on the defensive side, but being 2-9 means you don’t win the close ones. Seahawks still hard to assess, but they’re 7-4 and lead the NFC West.

    Raiders 20, Chiefs 17—Chiefs do what Carolina and Arizona do: lose at home to a team they need to beat to be taken seriously in the playoff picture. They won the time-of-possession battle and got 150 yards out of rookie RB Smith, and still lost to a fairly lackluster Oakland squad, which benefited from Justin Fargas’ 139 rushing yards on 22 carries. KC drops fourth in a row, falling to 4-7. Raiders threatening third place in AFC West at 3-8.

    Chargers 32, Ravens 14—Philip Rivers stepped up and gave the Chargers an overdue good game at quarterback. Some occasional highlights from RB LaDainian Tomlinson and four sacks from the defense also helped the cause for 6-5 San Diego, who now lead the AFC West (for the moment). Ravens, 4-7, are reeling with five losses in a row, and recorded no sacks, no INTs and no forced fumbles. Bright spot: QB Kyle Boller did not throw an interception. Next up for the Ravens: hosting the undefeated Patriots on Monday night.

    Jaguars 36, Buffalo 14—Jags QB David Garrard reestablishes his key role in the team’s playoff hopes with a gutty performance bulwarked by 104 rushing yards by Fred Taylor, who sure didn’t look like a 31-year-old injury-prone has-been. Taylor still has greatness about him and now has 10,221 career rushing yards with gas left in his tank. I’m thinking Hall of Fame for Freddie. Now the 8-3 Jags take the show on the road for a Sunday showdown with division-leading Indianapolis. Bills are 5-6, and all things considered should be glad they are. QB J. P. Losman will be benched next weekend in place of rookie Trent Edwards.

    Steelers 3, Dolphins 0—A Monday Night Football Mud Bowl extravaganza that remains scoreless until the Steelers kick a field goal with 17 seconds left in the game. Incessant rain turns freshly sodded Heinz Field into a swamp, which in turn gives the winless Fins a shot at victory on a level (read: completely unpredictable) playing field. Pittsburgh pulls it out though, running their record to 8-3. Miami is now 0-11, and they’ve lost six games by three points or fewer. Newly re-signed Ricky Williams ran the ball for the Dolphins (to little avail) and we got our first look at rookie QB John Beck, who looked pretty poised. Dolphins should win a game before the season is over.

    The Thanksgiving Games

    Packers 37, Lions 26—Favre excels, backed by solid running of Ryan Grant and terrific receiver play. Pack, now 10-1, getting ready to lock up NFC North, but head to Dallas next week for conference bragging rights. Lions, once 6-2, are now 6-5. Their offense looks out of synch, and they never really had a defense, so the early promise of postseason possibility looks in serious jeopardy now. Their schedule toughens up too.

    Cowboys 34, Jets 3—A Thanksgiving turkey if ever there were one. Guess Jets QB Kellen Clemens isn’t a savior, after all. Cowboys do it all in advancing to 10-1. Jets do what 2-9 teams often do: nuthin’.

    Colts 31, Falcons 13—Peyton turns in an efficient professional effort, which means the kind of day most pro QBs would take any Sunday (or, in this case, Thursday): 22-32, 272 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT. Colts also get 74 rushing yards out of Kenton Keith, who used to play in the CFL. Indy now 9-2, but Jacksonville is hot on their tail. Falcons, now 3-8, get four sacks, but their offense is dead.