Time to check in on the progress, or lack thereof, of NFL teams. Maybe four squads—Titans, Giants, Panthers, Cardinals—can be said to be definitely zeroing in on playoff berths. Otherwise, there are serious shades of gray still left out there. There are plenty of contenders, but an equal number of pretenders. Here’s a summary of what everyone did this past weekend, and where they all look to be heading.
Tennessee 24, Jacksonville 14—The Titans continue to defy skeptics, running their record to 10-0 and maintaining a four-game lead over the Colts in the AFC South. Their D has weathered a few injuries and keeps performing at a killer level. Opponents have scored only 131 points this year. The offense still seems less than imposing, yet they’re getting the job done, proving once again that with a fabulous offensive line all things are possible. Now 4-6, the Jaguars may be finished. Some folks (including yours truly) had ’em pegged for the Super Bowl. There’s still plenty of talent there, but they just don’t look like the intimidating group they once were. And despite a long-term contract, coach Jack Del Rio has some explaining to do.
New York Jets 34, New England 31—An overtime win in Foxboro is huge for Favre & Co. Jets (7-3) now lead the AFC East (by a slim one game), with the team playing balanced, aggressive football. Favre isn’t always great, but there’s still magic in that indefatigable warrior body. At 6-4, the Pats aren’t out of anything, of course, and it certainly wasn’t QB Matt Cassel’s fault they lost. He threw for 400 yards and a dramatic game-tying TD as regulation expired. The Patriots suffer inconsistency, and injuries have had a lot to do with that. Coach Bill Belichick is in the unfamiliar position of having to reach deeper into his bag of motivational tricks. One serious problem: Way more competition in the division.
Miami 17, Oakland 15—Four straight wins put the surprise Dolphins at 6-4 and vying for an AFC East title. We might add that they’re led by Jets “castoff” Chad Pennington at QB, still savvy, smart and efficient under new coach Tony Sparano’s variable offense, which includes the “wildcat” wrinkle that has given new potency to the running back duo of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. The Fins may go belly-up eventually, but they’re clearly not the 1-15 squad from ’07. The Raiders are 2-8 and going nowhere fast. In truth, they showed improvement early in the season, even in defeat. The team does have some talent, and if head coach Lane Kiffin hadn’t been fired, they might’ve even exceeded last season’s total of four wins. (Like, maybe five.) Out-to-lunch owner Al Davis took care of that, however. What’s amazing is that there are three teams worse than them at this juncture.
Dallas 14, Washington 10 —Big road win for the ’boys ties them with the Skins for second place in the NFC East at 6-4. Tony Romo returns to action and makes the important plays. Skins blow a big opportunity to stick it to their longtime rival and announce their arrival as a team to be seriously reckoned with. Their D looked tough, but QB Jason Campbell exhibited some negative recidivist tendencies, though maybe it was Dallas’ D that should get the credit. Hard-fought contest scrambles the NFC playoff picture a little further.
Pittsburgh 11, San Diego 10—Okay, well, there’s something definitely wrong with the Chargers. The vaunted offense was a popgun in a game where their D finally showed up. Philip Rivers throws two INTs, and LT again posts mediocre rushing numbers. The miracle is that, with their 4-6 record, they’re still within shouting distance of the AFC West-leading Broncos. This team was 11-5 in ’07 and finally won a playoff game for the first time in a long while. Is the backward slide Norv’s fault? The 7-3 Steelers grabbed a one-game lead in the AFC North. They may have eked out this win, but they moved the ball on offense every which way, their D still looks impressive, and if they dodged a bullet, so be it. Still the odds-on favorite for the division title.
New York Giants 30, Baltimore 10—Supposedly, the Ravens’ defense was to provide the Giants a stiff test here. It never happened. The Giants average 29.2 points a game, and their defense is as stingy as the offense is versatile. Now 9-1, Tom Coughlin’s troops are the class of the conference, and they’ll be tough to stop. The Ravens drop to 6-4, but with rookie QB Joe Flacco they’re still a good story and only one game behind Pittsburgh. Definitely in the hunt.
Green Bay 37, Chicago 3—Packers scramble the NFC North but good with this laugher over the Bears. Both teams are now 5-5, tied with the Vikings for first place in a division race that should go down to the wire, mainly because not one of these teams can assert any consistency and their out-of-division schedules are tough. Bears QB Kyle Orton hobbled around on his bum ankle, and the Packers defense was all over the field making plays. Packers RB Ryan Grant returned to form with 145 yards on the ground.
Tampa Bay 19, Minnesota 13—Up-and-down Vikes miss a chance to take undisputed possession of first place in the NFC North. Buccaneers (7-3) hang tough behind QB Jeff Garcia and keep pace with the NFC South-leading Panthers. Bucs travel to Detroit next weekend to take on the winless Lions.
Carolina 31, Detroit 22—Pathetic Lions (0-10) put up a good fight on the road—behind QB Daunte Culpepper, of all people—but Panthers’ running game proves too formidable. Now 8-2, Panthers aren’t a complete surprise, yet their division lead over Tampa Bay is but a single game. Carolina travels to Atlanta this coming weekend for what shapes up to be a big NFC South tilt.
Denver 24, Atlanta 20—Hard-fought battle in Atlanta proves one thing: Never underestimate a Mike Shanahan team. Broncos didn’t really put up spectacular numbers here, but they upped their record to 6-4 behind a gutsy performance by QB Jay Cutler, whose moxie and strong right arm often make him look like the new Favre. Falcons played hard, which they’ve done all season, but dropped to 6-4. Even so, they’re in the thick of the NFC wild-card race and still have a shot at a divisional crown.
San Francisco 35, St. Louis 16—That’s the Rams for ya: Lose four games, win two games, lose four more games. Their aggregate 2-8 (2-4 now under interim coach Jim Haslett) is sad indeed for a team with some definitely legit talent. But not only did they lose this game against the similarly underachieving division foe 49ers, they got slammed with injuries to key offensive linemen. Which means QB Marc Bulger can expect to spend the remainder of the season running even farther for his life. RB Steven Jackson didn’t play in his third game out of the last four due to his own nagging injury. All of which made for good news for Niners coach Mike Singletary, who tallied his first ever victory in the NFL. Hard to know what it all means for the rest of the Niners’ season, but now, at 3-7, they’ve assumed sole possession of second place in the NFC West. QB Shaun Hill put up strong numbers, and RB Frank Gore gained over 100 yards. Reality check next weekend: road trip to Dallas.
Arizona 26, Seattle 20—This isn’t how Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren ever envisioned his farewell season in Seattle. His team is 2-8. The return of injured QB Matt Hasselbeck was inauspicious (three INTs), and the leading rusher was Julius Jones with 19 yards on 10 carries. Ultimately, even two fourth-quarter TDs by T. J. Duckett, pulling the Hawks within six of the Cardinals, probably just offered a sadly false hope. The wheels are pretty much off this bus. Meanwhile, Arizona’s 37-year-old “Energizer Bunny” QB Kurt Warner (assisted by his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ) threw for 395 yards—his franchise-record fourth straight 300-yard game (move over, Charley Johnson, Jim Hart and Neil Lomax, not to mention Gary Hogeboom, Tom Tupa and Timm Rosenbach). This Cardinals squad is wafting in the heady aroma of a 7-3 record for the first time in more than 30 years, and it puts them straight on course for their—get this—second winning season since 1984. (Heck, even the Lions haven’t been that inept; they have six winning seasons since then.) Here’s another stat: Since 1948, when they were in Chicago, the Cards have played in a grand total of five playoff games, losing all but one. If they grab that NFC West crown, they might make head coach Ken Whisenhunt King of the Desert. (Don’t blow it, Ken.)
New Orleans 30, Kansas City 20—Apparently, the Saints do want to stay in the playoff race. They pulled to 5-5 with this convincing-enough defeat of the woeful 1-9 Chiefs. But Drew Brees & Co. have their work cut out for them, since even at .500 they’re last in the NFC South. The wild card is their best, most reasonable hope, but they’ll probably have to win five more games and pray for divine intervention. There are currently five other non-division-leading teams in the NFC with better records, and this doesn’t look like a lucky year for inconsistency. As for the Chiefs, well, Larry Johnson returned to tally 67 yards on 19 carries (eh!), and Tyler Thigpen seems to be establishing himself as the best Chiefs QB on two functioning legs. The Chiefs will win another game (but don’t quote me on that).
Indianapolis 33, Houston 27—Colts rediscover their potent offense, win a game they have to win, raise their record to 6-4 and bolster their wild-card chances considerably. The Texans are definitely the best 3-7 team in the league. Bad luck and an unforgiving schedule have conspired against them. They were in this one till a late Sage Rosenfels interception short-circuited their hopes for last-minute heroics. Rookie RB Steve Slaton shredded the Colts D for 156 rushing yards. Houston has yet to play the Packers and the Bears, so they could ruin somebody’s postseason plans.
Philadelphia 13, Cincinnati 13—So apparently, Philly QB Donovan McNabb was unaware that you could have a tie in the NFL. So after his Eagles (5-4-1) and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s Bengals (1-8-1) slugged it out for an extra quarter with no resolution to the game, he mentally prepared to play yet another quarter. Sorry, Donovan. That took cahones to admit your ignorance to the press. Especially for a guy that’s been in the league since 1999. Whatever. A tie is like kissing your sister, but it’s better than being spurned by the homely fat girl with bad acne (i.e., losing). And who knows? It might actually work in the Eagles’ favor come wild-card time. Former Bears RB Cedric Benson returned to form for Cincy: 42 yards on 23 carries (1.8 avg.). Thanks, CB: You had us worried with that 104-yard performance on Nov. 2.
Cleveland 29, Buffalo 27—This Monday night game was very exciting, but it's hard to know what it means in the bigger picture. Either the Browns (4-6) played gutty, or the Bills—now 5-5 after a 4-0 start—are coming apart at the seams. Buffalo QB Trent Edwards' lackluster game—including three INTs—undermined RB Marshawn Lynch's 119-yard effort and the Bills' domination of time of possession. Meanwhile, Brady Quinn won his first game as a starter for the Browns, though his numbers weren't much—14-of-36 for 185 yards. The Browns' timely D and Phil Dawson's late 56-yard field goal won it for 'em, but it could have easily gone the other way if the Bills' Rian Lindell hadn't missed a makeable 47-yarder at game's end. Browns coach Romeo Crennel lives to fight another day, but the win may only have forestalled the inevitable. His record since 2005 is 22-36, and only a near-miracle gets his team into the playoffs. As for the Bills, their fast start keeps them in contention, but suddenly they're last in the AFC East. Head coach Dick Jauron's cartoon-bubble thought: "It wasn't supposed to go this way..."