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.
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.
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.