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NFL Week 13 Review

In NFL on December 10, 2009 at 10:22 pm
It’s the business end of the season in the National Football League, and every weekend from now until January will see more teams’ playoff hopes fade.

AFC

The first game of the week saw the New York Jets stay alive in the AFC East with a crucial division win over the Buffalo Bills. The Bills have had a hugely disappointing season so far, and have fallen out of contention at 4-8. The Jets though, have recovered from a 4-6 start to even up their record and keep themselves right in the mix.

On Sunday, the Miami Dolphins made it a perfect weekend for the Jets, when they pipped the suddenly fragile New England Patriots. Just a month ago, the Pats were sitting pretty at the top of the division and just a few cool heads away from a morale-boosting win over their arch rivals the Colts. Instead, Belichick’s blunder handed Peyton Manning a gift, and it looks as though that 4th down failure will be the defining moment of New England’s season.

Tom Brady's Patriots are having a tough season

Their once impregnable defence has looked worryingly leaky in recent weeks, and while Tom Brady has been slowly getting back to his vintage best, he can’t play D. The 2005 Superbowl champs are now being hounded by the hard-running Dolphins and the rejuvenated Jets, and a slip-up against Carolina this weekend could see them in a 3-way tie for the Division.

The AFC North has been a dogfight between two iron clad defensive giants in recent times, but this year, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens both find themselves precariously placed at 6-6, and desperately needing to win out in order to secure their play-off spots. Their travails have allowed the once maligned Cincinnati Bengals to quietly amass a 9-3 record, which includes an astonishing sweep of a tough division.

The ‘Cardiac Cats’ have kicked on from their early season Houdini acts, and have evolved into a confident, dangerous outfit that need just one more win for the Divisional title. They weren’t at their fluid best against the woeful Detroit Lions at the weekend, but they were never in real trouble and when they needed him, the lethal Chad Ochocinco stepped up and had a big game. The week before, it was new running back Larry Johnson who notched 100 yards rushing as they squashed the Cleveland Browns. With running back Cedric Benson fit and firing, they have a potent offence, and could make some noise later in the season. They are a well balanced team, and after going a perfect 6-0 in the most bruising division in the NFL, no-one will relish playing them.

The less said about the ailing Cleveland Browns, the better. 12 games in, their only win is still a gruesome 6-3 dogfight against the Buffalo Bills, and as they try and settle on a quarterback to take them forward, the rest of the season is a purely face-saving exercise.

One of the stories of the season though, has to be the very real possibility of last year’s champs the Pittsburgh Steelers crashing out before the play-offs. They have an excellent running back in Rashard Mendenhall, and some useful weapons for Ben Roethlisberger, but the injury to star safety Troy Polamalu has really hurt them and they’ve lost too many close games. Their last 4 games, for example, have been lost by a total of 15 points. The loss to a giant-killing Oakland Raiders side on Sunday was the same old story, as mental lapses late in the game cost them dear. Their season could well be over now.

Last year's Superbowl champs have badly missed game-changing safety Troy Polamalu

The Baltimore Ravens have a better chance of winning out and advancing, but only because of the weakness of their schedule. They are the most penalised team in the league, and watching their game at Lambeau Field was like watching the X Factor – if you didn’t laugh, you’d probably break down crying. At one stage, one of the officials had to throw his hat out on the field after he ran out of flags. The call was a typical one against the Ravens and came at a crucial stage. Still in contention and driving hard for a crucial score,  a 47-yard pass to Desmond Mason was negated by the umpteenth pass interference call. Mason’s frustration resulted in the comical sight of an angry official flinging his hat, and the not so comical sight (for B-more fans anyway) of a 3rd and 32 just a few yards from their own line.

While a loss at Lambeau to the Pack and a super-charged Charles Woodson is acceptable, the manner of the defeat shouldn’t be, and with Joe Flacco slumping and the Ray Lewis led defence beginning to fade, it doesn’t look like Baltimore’s year.

One team who could very well walk away with the big prize is the AFC South leading Indianapolis Colts. Peyton Manning’s team (and make no mistake, this is Peyton Manning’s team) have stormed to a 12-0 start, and with a soft schedule coming up they look a good bet to run the table.

Whether this is more of a millstone than an advantage remains to be seen, but the Colts supernatural levels of grit have really impressed so far. A small offensive line are perfectly suited to protecting the pocket for their pass master Manning, and despite a relative lack of a ground attack, their passing unit is so well drilled that it scarcely seems to matter. Incredibly, they rank last in yards per game on the ground, but 4th overall in points per game.

Having said that though, their defence is a little more vulnerable, and they give up nearly 350 yards per game. They know how to win though, and with a bit of luck, they could easily advance to the big show in February.

The rest of the division is not so pretty, unfortunately. The Jacksonville Jaguars have leant heavily on their human bowling ball Maurice Jones-Drew, who has already amassed over 1000 yards and 13 touchdowns. Elsewhere though, they’re not nearly as dangerous, and despite currently holding a wild card spot, they will struggle to secure it with some good teams chasing them down.

Mighty Mo-Jo Drew may be small, but he packs a punch

They got away with one this weekend, as their divisional tussle with the Houston Texans was turned on its head by an interception. Interceptions happen, but questions will be asked of the Texans play-calling after this debacle. A half-back pass on 1st and goal at the 5? Absolute madness. This kind of crazy decision is the reason why the Texans are going nowhere. This team just doesn’t have the belief. You have to feel for the awesome Andre Johnson, as his side’s unforgiveable collapse to the Colts just summed up all the problems in this franchise.

Vince Young’s Tennessee Titans, meanwhile, briefly threatened to become the story of the season as they rebounded from an 0-6 start to rack up 5 wins on the spin. But their playoff hopes were finally put to bed by the ruthless Colts last weekend. With Young finally starting to fulfil his rich promise though, and the league’s leading running back in Chris Johnson, they have some important building blocks in place.

The AFC West is a strange division, with two excellent sides and two struggling teams with some big scalps. The San Diego Chargers lead the two tier division by a game from the Denver Broncos, and they look like the best bet to cause a post-season stir. With a solid D and the ultra competitive Philip Rivers helming a high scoring offense, they could be a good outside bet for the AFC title. They had an unexpected struggle against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, but they’re on a good run and look to be building momentum at the perfect time. Worse news for their competitors is that LaDainian Tomlinson could finally be rolling again. If they can get that running game firing, they will have a big say in January.

The Denver Broncos, on the other hand, are an enigma. A roaring start to the season ensured they were the talk of the league, as hard-hitting safety Brian Dawkins inspired them to a 6-0 opening. They stalled horribly in the next four games though, amassing just 37 points and giving up 118, before rebounding to win their next two. They absolutely annihilated the Kansas Chiefs on Sunday, running in five touchdowns and putting up 44 points against their divisional rivals. Despite having the prolific Brandon Marshall at receiver though, they are far too reliant on rookie Knowshon Moreno for their running yards, and will probably not go too deep in the play-offs, if they make it.

Brian Dawkins helped inspire the Denver Broncos to a 6-0 start

The other two teams in the division are the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders, who have been about as predictable as a coin toss so far this year, as they have amassed a joint record of 7-17, but also hold wins over Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh (twice).

The Raiders have finally benched the woeful JaMarcus Russel and look to have hit a groove with Bruce Gradkowski under centre. Their jaw-dropping win over the Steelers will give them hope for the future, as Gradkowski passed for more touchdown in one quarter then Russel had managed in the whole season so far.

The Chiefs though, are in a mess. They haven’t got anywhere near the production they expected from Matt Cassell, and axing the malcontent Larry Johnson may be one of the only positives to come out of a demoralising season.

NFC

The NFC East has been one of the strongest divisions in the NFL in recent years, with the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins all perennial playoff contenders. But this season, it looks very unlikely that the eventual champs will emerge from this dogfight.

The Dallas Cowboys lead the division at 8-4, but they’ve seen their lead whittled down by the Eagles in recent weeks, and only have the edge due to their win in Philly a few weeks ago. With a brutal schedule to negotiate, they could struggle to get 10 wins. Their loss to the Giants on Sunday was a massive setback, and will raise fresh questions about the toughness of QB Tony Romo and his team. ‘Mr November’ was not to blame for the loss on Sunday, although he did miss receiver Roy Williams in the flat at a crucial stage. What is even more worrying for Cowboys fans is that Sunday’s loss was a collective failure, hinting at the fact that the end of season malaise could lie a lot deeper than Romo. Crucial turnovers, special teams malfunctions and inexcusable stupidity (take a bow, Flozell) all contributed to the loss, and they badly need to bounce back against the Chargers this weekend or they could find themselves with some familiar questions to answer in a few weeks time.

The New York Giants have had a strange season themselves, and as strange as it sounds, are lucky that they’re in such a tough division as there is no dominant force in the East. That means that despite dropping five games in a row, they are still in with a realistic shot at the divisional title. Their 6-0 start had most pundits confidently tipping them for another Superbowl appearance, but injury niggles have slowed down Eli Manning, and the formerly best defence in the NFL has slipped alarmingly, and now ranks 25th, allowing nearly 24 points a game.

While players like Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck have struggled, Eli has begun to recover, showing some of the old magic in the weekend’s crucial victory. If they lost that game, their season was effectively over, and they showed that when the chips are down, they know how to produce. That determination and belief is something that only comes with a Superbowl ring, and it means they can never be discounted. The play-offs are a possibility given their schedule, but it would take a huge effort, and the team’s problems are a little too deep-rooted to make them a major force in the postseason. With Brandon Jacobs finally running hard and straight, they could kick on from here, but they face another win or go home divisional game this weekend.

Their opponents on Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles, have had an up and down season which has included crushing defeats to the Saints, and heart-breakers against the Raiders and Cowboys. They are always a fun team to watch, with a blitzing defence and a pass happy offence. But this reliance on the pass is what will cost them. Their lack of a go-to running game makes them predictable, and despite a bevy of athletic receivers for Donovan McNabb to play with, Brian Westbrook’s concussions and Andy Reid’s play-calling could be the twin rocks upon which their season founders.

Donovan McNabb's Eagles are set for a huge clash with the Giants this weekend

Their efforts to integrate young running back LeSean McCoy and veteran full-back Leonard Weaver have been a qualified success, but when push comes to shove, Reid almost always reverts to the pass. How many other teams would you see throwing two incompletions from the 1 yard line? Having said all that, the Eagles should reach the play-offs, and will be a problem for all their opponents once they do. Their rout of a gutted Atlanta Falcons side on Sunday tells us very little, other than the fact that the Eagles can run up a big score against a poor opponent.

With divisional games still to play against the Giants (this weekend) and the Cowboys (in week 17) they have their fate in their own hands, and two wins there would see them, in all probability, wrapping up the NFC East title.

The Washington Redskins bring up the rear of the division with a disappointing 3-9 record, but they have given their fans some reasons to be cheerful in recent weeks. They played with heart and pride in the last two weeks, despite dropping close games to their divisional rivals, and were part of one of the games of the season against the Saints this weekend. If they’d hung tough in those three games, they would be in the shake up. Although they do have a serviceable QB in Jason Campbell and some good receivers in Randle El and Santana Moss, it’s their ground game which has let them down on both sides of the ball. They have rushed for just over 100 yards per game, while giving up over 120, and until these problems are addressed, the ‘Skins will struggle.

In the NFC South, it was the New Orleans Saints who were the ones benefitting from the Redskins soft centre this weekend, as they improved to 12-0 and kept pace with the Colts in the race to a perfect season. Although every great season will have some squeakers, this one was far too close for comfort, and you have to wonder just how much of their season’s quota of luck the Saints spent here. It’s also hard to believe that the ‘Skins would have capitulated so badly had they not thrown away two huge games in the lead up to this one. Winning is a hard habit to pick up.

The Saints have been addicted to it all year, but no-one expected them to rise from the dead quite so dramatically. Trailing 30-23 and defending a 1st and goal with just a minute or so remaining, the Saints forced a Shaun Suisham field goal, which he duly muffed. Drew Brees then hit Robert Meachem with a bomb to tie the game, and the Saints iced it in OT. There were so many crucial plays that contributed to the win though, from Suisham’s choke to the Drew Brees interception which was then turned back over by Meachem, of all people, and returned for a touchdown, but coach Sean Payton is the one who is taking a lot of plaudits, and rightly so. His decision to call a timeout in overtime allowed the officials to examine the preceding play, which was then overturned and ruled a fumble by the Redskins. That was the final nail in Washington’s coffin, and completed the great escape for one of the league’s hottest teams. With 3 games coming up against their weak divisional rivals, we could have an unprecedented two perfect records this season.

Drew Brees has led his Saints to a perfect 12-0 start

They are not flawless, though. The Redskins showed that their defence, despite coming up with numerous huge plays throughout the season, is still a bit lightweight. The defensive line can be contained, as they struggled to get near Jason Campbell all day. That puts the pressure on the secondary, and if they can’t come up with the big interceptions, it’s very possible to score points against the Saints.

That said, they will never have a better chance of a Superbowl win, and they are eminently capable of sealing the big prize if things go their way.

They will be the only side from the division to make the playoffs though, as the unfortunate Atlanta Falcons have dropped 3 of their last 4 and faded out of contention. Injuries to QB Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner have left them a shell of the team that started the season so promisingly, and their blowout loss to the Eagles on Sunday was a sad end to a year that had promised so much.

The Carolina Panthers are also finished, but everyone knew that long ago. They have one of the best receivers in the league in Steve Smith, and one of the strongest ground attacks with the devastating one-two punch of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. But quarterback is where this team’s problem lies. Jake Delhomme was tied to a huge contract in the off-season, and it looks like one of the biggest blunders in recent NFL history. Delhomme has passed for less than 170 yards per game this season (Williams and Stewart have rushed for over 150!) and thrown 18 interceptions with just the 8 touchdowns. Those are career-killing numbers, and with no team in their right mind going near Del-boy’s giant contract, it could be a tough few years in Carolina.

They did manage a win over the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the weekend though, as the Bucs slipped to 1-11 in a humiliating season. Averaging only 15 points per game, they’ve been toothless all season. On the bright side, they do have Cadillac Williams fit again and look to have uncovered a prospect in Josh Freeman at QB, but there needs to be a serious shake-up in Tampa Bay for things to change.

The NFC North is a division with two possible contenders, the 10-2 Minnesota Vikings and the 8-4 Green Bay Packers.

The Vikings have been one of the stories of the season, as hall of famer Brett Favre has put up career numbers at the ripe old age of 40 and a gigantic defensive line has terrorised quarterbacks the league over. And that’s not even mentioning one of the NFL’s premier running backs, Adrian Peterson.

Their second loss of the season came against last year’s NFC champs, the Arizona Cardinals, on Sunday, but that should be no more than a hiccup as they cruise to the playoffs. Favre has been a revelation this season, as he’s passed for 26 touchdowns with only a handful of interceptions. With him pulling the strings, youngsters like Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin have flourished, while tight end Visanthe Shiancoe has had a career year. Meanwhile, Peterson has been his usual blockbusting self, racking up over 1100 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns so far this season. With the inside run-stuffing of the Williams brothers and the QB-seeking missile Jared Alled on the defensive line, this is a team with no obvious weakness.

Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was shut down by the Cardinals on Sunday night

They will need to bounce back this week though, just to prove to themselves that their surprising loss at the weekend was an aberration. How many times will we see Peterson contained to just 19 yards rushing? Or Favre throw 2 interceptions? Or the defence be held without a sack and shredded deep so often? Not many is the answer, because the Vikings are legit.

The Green Bay Packers are another side who could ruffle some postseason feathers, and they would relish a meeting with Favre and the Vikings in January. They’ve put together four big wins in a row to grab a wildcard berth, and much of this has been down to the development of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He was being pummelled early in the season, as the Pack gave up over 20 sacks (a league high), but a clear the air meeting has had the desired effect, and his consistent play along with an improved level of protection has helped them to some big wins.

With one of the most dominating defences in the league, led by the awesome Charles Woodson, the Packers were always a side with potential. Now they have started translating that potential into performances, their opponents could have a big problem. They should get to 10 wins with their schedule, and look a good bet for the postseason.

They play divisional rivals the Chicago Bears on Sunday, and should improve to 9-4 against a poor Bears side, even at Soldier Field.

The Bears have all sorts of problems this year, as their usually excellent defense has given up over 22 points a game. With that sort of deficit to make up, the offense has flopped, and Jay Cutler has struggled at quarterback. Devin Hester is their leading receiver this year, with less than 700 yards and only three touchdowns, while Matt Forte has also struggled in a misfiring rushing game. They managed to squeeze out a close win against St Louis, but only scoring 17 points against the Rams gives you a good idea of where this team is at.

The Detroit Lions make up the numbers in this division, and they lie in last place with a 2-10 record so far. They put up a good struggle against the red-hot Bengals on Sunday, and their incredible win over the Cleveland Browns a couple of weeks ago was the game of the season, in which a new star was born in Matt Stafford. Expectations need to be tempered, as the rookie is still developing and needs time to get used to the big leagues. If he does though, the Lions could finally have a shot at the playoffs in the next few years.

The NFC West has been one of the weakest divisions this year, but the Arizona Cardinals will emerge from the dross, and they’ll have high hopes of another Superbowl appearance. With a powder-puff schedule, the Cards could conceivably finish with 12 wins, and with their balance, experience and playmakers on both sides of the ball, it would take a foolish man to bet against them in any situation.

Their crushing Sunday night win over the seemingly infallible Vikings was a microcosm of what makes this team so great. With Kurt Warner throwing for over 3000 yards and 23 touchdowns already this season, we saw just how devastating they could be when he gets in rhythm with Larry Fitzgerald and the alpha competitor Anquan Boldin. With Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells sharing out the yards and the touchdowns so far, they have one of the best offences in the league, but Sunday was the defence’s time to stand up and get some attention. Although they’ve been giving up a damaging 257 yards per game in the air, they picked Favre off twice on Sunday and kept the explosive Adrian Peterson to just 19 yards. With playmakers like Carlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett and Antrelle Rolle buzzing around, they showed they are capable of defensively dominant performances. They will be a force to be reckoned with in the post-season.

Leapin' Larry Fitzgerald had a big game on Sunday night

They play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, but it will take a collapse of epic proportions for them to give their rivals even a sniff of the division. The 49ers, on the other hand, are doomed at 5-7. They’re a hard team to run on with Patrick Willis dominating the centre, but apart from that they offer very little.

Alex Smith has taken over as the main man in the offense, and has a good understanding with tight end Vernon Davis, but he has thrown only 13 touchdowns to go with 7 interceptions. With Frank Gore not making the kind of impact that would offset this weakness, it makes the 49ers a very average team. Losing to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday was unforgivable,and a disappointing way to end their season.

The Seahawks themselves have been very poor this season, but picked up a couple of wins over San Fran and St Louis in recent weeks to recover to a respectable 5-7. They have problems all over the field, and need to find a long term replacement for Matt Hasselbeck along with a running game. Wide receiver TJ Houshmandzadeh has not had the impact that was expected either, weighing in with only 3 touchdowns so far. With a defence that’s giving up nearly 350 yards a game, this is a team in need of a miracle.

But things could be worse – they could be the St Louis Rams. Ranked dead last in points per game and sporting a dismal 1-11 record, this could just be the league’s worst team. If it wasn’t for the astonishing Steven Jackson contributing over 1200 yards rushing, there’s no telling how bad this team could be. They need to find someone other than Marc Bulger to lead the offense, and then they can start thinking about improving elsewhere. Until then, cover your eyes Rams fans, because this is not pretty.

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