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?
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