(Philadelphia, Pa) — Throughout the 2008 NFL season there have been several periphery stories (The Plaxico Burress shooting, Water pills-gate, pending CBA problems, the NFLPA’s fight with retirees, a potential uncapped year in 2010, etc) that have unsuccessfully tried to take attention away from the true on-field greatness of the NFL. Week 13 of the 2008 NFL season proved once again that nothing can takeaway the majesty of the greatest sports league around.
Week 14 provided non-stop action from Thursday to Monday while enhancing an intriguing and ever-changing playoff picture. To the joy of NFL fans, it truly looks like former commissioner Pete Rozelle’s dream will come true as the parity-laden 2008 NFL season — 19 teams above .500 and four divisions leads within 1 game — will most definitely come down to week 17. As we move toward the regular season’s melodramatic end, NFL teams are trying to live-up to the season’s moniker of “Believe In Now” while scrambling for the 9 remaining playoffs spots.
Some tidbits from Week 14 include:
Teams clinching division titles (Tennessee Titans, New York Giants, and Arizona Cardinals) – These three unlikely division winners all proved that preseason hype means nothing.
- With a 28-9 win over the Browns, the Titans (12-1) finally wrestled the AFC South crown from the Colts by literally running away from their division fueled by running backs Chris Johnson – looks like the Rookie of the Year after eclipsing 1,000 yards already – and LenDale White.
- Though Giants (11-2) stumbled to the Eagles 20-14 this week (distractioned??), the disrespected 2007 Super Bowl champs (some say they were just lucky) easily took home the NFC East title after almost everyone picked the star studded Cowboys to runaway with the division.
- One of the biggest stories of the week surrounded the Cardinals finally living up to years of hype by winning the woeful NFC West title with a 34-10 thrashing of the Rams. The Cardinals (8-5) won their first division title since 1975 (NFC East) and they will host their first home playoff game since 1947 (Chicago Cardinals beating the Eagles 28-21 in the title game). Now it will be interesting to see if the Cardinal defense is ready to help out the offense in the playoffs – 323 points allowed, ranking them 24th in the NFL.
Statement game wins (Steelers over the Cowboys, Panthers over the Buccaneers, and Ravens over the Redskins)
- In the NFL’s game of the week, the Steelers once again showed their toughness as they rallied for 17 points in the 4th quarter to achieve a 20-13 win over the reeling Cowboys. In the game, the Cowboys seemed to relax after stopping the Steelers on a 4th and 1 play. Rallying behind tough quarterback Ben Roethlisberger – hit over and over as he threw 33 times – and their attacking defense, the Steelers showed they are ready for the playoffs. On the other side of the equation, you have to start to wonder after such a loss, if the Dallas Cowboys (8-5) are starting their end of season swoon again. Quarterback Tony Romo still is having problems getting it done in December and January – now has a record of 4-8 in those months including two playoffs losses – and it showed as he threw three interceptions including the game-clincher to DeShea Townsend.
- The Panthers on Monday Night Football announced to the NFC South and the rest of the NFL that they are indeed looking to return to the Super Bowl. Fueled by their unbelievable tailback combination of rookie Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers rolled over the aging Buccaneers 38-23 as they piled up almost 300 yards (finishing with 299)
- Earlier in the year I thought the Ravens were a nice story, but eventually the youth they had at quarterback and head coach would prove to be their detriment. Boy…. was I wrong about this team. In a huge Sunday Night Football game, John Harbaugh’s squad showed that they were ready for primetime. The Ravens 24-10 romp over the reeling Redskins (have lost 4 of their last 6 games) was driven their attacking defense (Ray Lewis season-high 13 tackles), a commitment to the running game (147 rushing yards) and efficient play by rookie passer Joe Flacco (8th consecutive game with a touchdown). Ravens have their chance to get atop of the AFC North standings in week 14 as they host the division-leading Steelers.
The AFC East is a logjam right now – The Niners’ 24-14 upset win over the former AFC East division-leading Jets was a true stunner. The Jets were not hungry enough as Mike “Iron Mike II” Singletary’s team played spoiler again. The young Niners continued to believe in the tough rookie coach’s prideful message, as they never let up on Favre and the Jets. The Patriots come from behind win over the Seahawks 24-21 proved once again, injuries or not, never count out Bill Belichick’s team in December — Pats are 21-2 in December since 2003. The Dolphins continued their mission to go from “Worst to First” as they went North of the Border (NFL’s first regular season game in Canada) for a 16-13 win over the Bills. The last three weeks will be exciting as these teams in arguably the AFC’s toughest division fight it out to see who can move on from (8-5). It may all come down to the Jets hosting the Dolphins in week 17, but stay tuned.
Possible season saving wins (Eagles 20-14 over the Giants, Chargers over the Raiders 34-7 and Saints over the Falcons 29-25). The Eagles reverted to 2006 form in running the football — ran 41 times, which is a high for Andy Reid’s 10-year tenure, for 144 yards — on their way to out-muscling the Giants and handing them their first home loss of the season. The Chargers took another step toward a potential AFC West showdown in week 17 with the Broncos as they blasted the hapless Raiders. Fueled by emerging running back Pierre Thomas, the Saints — have been kind of inconsistent this season with having won two games in a row once — enhanced their playoff chances with a big win over the Falcons.
A possible season-ending loss — The Packers, who have been battling foes and the ghost of Brett Favre all season, seemed to have completely fallen out of the playoff hunt after a tough 24-21 home loss to the Texans. The game ended when Texans kicker Kris Brown hit a 40-yard field goal as time expired, capping a nine-play, 75-yard drive that started with under two minutes to play. If you are looking for a fall guy for the Packers, please don’t point at quarterback Aaron Rodgers as the first year starters has played well. The Packers defense is the area of the team that needs an overhaul as the Texans held the ball for 34:03 minutes and gained a total of 549 whopping yards including a career high of 414 passing yards to quarterback Matt Schaub.
Lions fall again — The Lions continued to play hard for beleaguered head Rod Marinelli. But they could not hold on to a 6-3 halftime lead in route to losing a close 20-16 loss to the Vikings. The Vikings needed backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson to come off the bench and throw a 4th quarter touchdown pass for the win. Unfortunately the Lions set a franchise record with their 14th straight loss, while also becoming the sixth team in NFL history to start a season 0-13. The Lions have now lost 20 of their last 21 games overall. The Lions are the fourth team to start 0-13 or worse since 1976, when the expansion Tampa Bay finished 0-14. If there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the Lions, the 2007 Dolphins (0-13), 1986 Colts (0-13) and 1980 Saints (0-14) avoided the dubious distinction of being the first team to finish winless since the league lengthened the regular season in 1978. “We’ve got something to play for,” Lions kicker Jason Hanson said. Hopefully for the Lions they can win one of their three remaining games (@IND, NO, and @GB). However don’t count on it coming against Peyton and the red-hot Colts in Week 15 as Indy with their 35-3 win over the Bengals became the second team in NFL history to win six consecutive games in five straight seasons (49ers, 1989-95).
Now that we know that division champions Titans (AFC South), Cardinals (NFC West) and Giants (NFC East) are securely in playoffs, let’s take a look at the final three games of the teams vying for the remaining five division titles and nine coveted playoff berths.
CAR (10-3) DEN, @NYG, @NO — My pick to win the NFC South, proved they are playoff ready against the Bucs but there is more work to be done.
TB (9-4) @ATL, SDO, OAK — I still believe a wildcard berth awaits Gruden and Garcia, but a key NFC South match-up waits in week 15.
DAL (8-5) NYG, BAL, @PHI — Are Romo and the ‘Boys limping home again?? Their season will be on the line as they face the Giants in a key NFC East rivalry game.
ATL (8-5) TAM, @MIN, STL – Are Matt “Ice” Ryan and head coach Mike Smith hitting a wall?? Falcons need to beat the Bucs to get back on track
MIN (8-5) @ARI, ATL, NYG — With an uncomfortable 1-game lead, controversy surrounds Brad Childress’ team with questions of “What QB to play” and “Will the Williams Tag Team be allowed to play” are in the air.
PHI (7-5-1) CLE, @WAS, DAL — The Eagles fueled by a cry of “Remember the Tie”, have stormed back in the playoff race. Andy Reid’s team knows they must win-out so following up their huge win over the Giants with a MNF beat-down of the Browns is omnipotent.
CHI (7-6) NO, GB, @HOU – Fueled by two home games, the tough at home Bears will try to catch the Vikes with their crucial 3-game trek beginning on Thursday against the upstart Saints.
NO (7-6) @CHI (Thurs), @DET, CAR – The Saints and record-setting quarterback Drew Brews keep marching on, but Thursday’s NFL Network classic against the Bears (rematch of 2005 NFC Championship) will be tough.
WAS (7-6) @CIN, PHI, @SFO – Should beat the Bengals, but Jim Zorn’s squad is limping home after losing four of their last six games.
PIT (10-3) @BAL, @TEN, CLE — P’Burgh quite possible could be the AFC’s best team as they are solid in all three phases of the game (offense, defense, and special teams). I still believe Mike Tomlin’s team wins the AFC North, but tough road games against the Ravens and Titans await.
IND (9-4) DET, @JAC, TEN — Have won six games in a row and look for them to be on a roll as the playoffs approach due to a nice schedule.
BAL (9-4) PIT, @DAL, JAC – I still believe it will be the tough Ravens and the veteran Patriots or Jets vying for the last wildcard spot. Of course the Ravens can put any wildcard talk to rest with a win over the rival Steelers this week.
NYJ (8-5) BUF, @SEA, MIA — If Favre and the Jets want to be AFC East champs, they will need to pick-it-up down the stretch taking advantage of a weak schedule.
DEN (8-5) @CAR, BUF, @SDO – One more win and the weak AFC West is all Mike Shanahan’s, but the Bronco schedule is not so favorable as they face hungry teams like the Panthers and Chargers.
NE (8-5) @OAK, ARI, @BUF — Even though they are injured, history is on the side of Bill Belichick’s team as they are 21-2 in December under the volatile coach since 2003. The Pats will look to ride a favorable schedule to an AFC East crown.
MIA (8-5) SF, @KAN, @NYJ — Quickly becoming the NFL’s best story of 2008 (Great turnaround from 1-15), the Dolphins should get their shot against the Jets in week 17. Before thinking of visions of Favre and the Jets, the ‘Phins must first take care of business against the tough Niners and the run-happy Chiefs.
SD (4-8) @KAN, @TAM, DEN – Hanging on by the NFL’s thinnest thread with a shot at the sorry AFC West crown, the Bolts must win-out and hope that the Bronco stumble on their way to their week 17 match-up.
Philadelphia Eagles RB Brian Westbrook — Eagles head coach Andy Reid was so desperate for a win that he changed his stubborn philosophy and ran the football like never before — Eagles rushed 41 times for 144 yards, with the number of carries being a team-high in Reid’s 10 years. The catalyst for the Eagles in their 20-14 upset win was Westbrook. The Pro Bowl runner had a career-high 39 total touches (tied the franchise single-game record) for 203 total yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. It was Westbrook’s fifth career game with 200-plus total yards, and pushed him past Harold Carmichael (9,042) to set the franchise record for all-time yards from scrimmage with 9,085 yards. It was also Westbrook’s 18th career 100-yard rushing game, and the 12th time in his career he’s had a rushing TD and receiving TD in same game.
Houston Texans QB Matt Schaub – The Texans signal caller returned from injury to pass for a career-high and franchise record 414 yards in a 24-21 win over the Packers in frozen Lambeau Field. Schaub led the Texans to a franchise record 549 total yards while finishing with eye-popping numbers (28-of-42, with two touchdowns and one interception).
Carolina Panthers RB’s DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart – It seems also every week that I am honoring one or both of the NFL’s best running back tandem. In a national television statement-win over division rival the Tampa Bucs, the Panthers “Shake and Bake” combo helped produce 299 rushing yards against one of the NFL’s best defenses. Williams ran inside and outside producing noteworthy numbers 19 rushes for 186 yards and 2 TD’s with a long of 41 yards. Rookie of the Year candidate continued to rumble past defenders as he blasted the Bucs defense over and over on bone-crunching runs, finishing with impressive numbers 15 rushes for 115 yards and 2 TD’s. Stewart and Williams made the Bucs stout defense look old, especially when Stewart slammed potential Hall of Famer Rhonde Barber to the ground on a nasty first down run.
Bears Chicago Bears RB Matt Forte – Chicago’s choice for the rookie of the year continued to carry the Bears offense as he finished with 107 total yards in the 23-10 win over the Jaguars. Forte, who excels at running and catching the football, broke Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers’ team rookie record for total yards from scrimmage in a season with 1,476 (Sayers had 1,374 yards in 1965).
Titans rookie RB Chris Johnson – My choice for rookie of the year continued his miraculous season as he rushed for 136 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in a the Titans 28-9 dominating victory over the Browns. The game marked Johnson’s, fourth career 100-yard game and the dread locked speedster also eclipsed 1,000 yards for the season (1,094 yards). In going over the 1,000 rushing yards barrier, the former East Carolina star joined Eddie George and Earl Campbell as the only rookies in team history to break the 1,000-yard mark.
Miami Dolphins LB Joey Porter – Though his mouth sometimes gets him in trouble (See Porter’s comments on guns and Michael Vick), there is no denying the greatness for the former Steelers linebacker. Porter posted two more sacks in the Dolphins’ 16-3 win over the Bills, giving him a league-leading 16.5 on the season. With 3 games to go, Porter will need six sacks to tie former Giants sackman Michael Strahan’s 2001 record of 22.5 sacks.
Other Honorees: Tampa Bay Bucs WR Antonio Bryant (9 receptions for 200 yards, 2 TDs in the Bucs’ MNF loss), Minnesota Vikings QB Tarvaris Jackson (Answered his critics by coming off the bench and leading the Vikings over the Lions finishing with passing numbers 8-10, 105 yards and the game-winning touchdown), Carolina Panthers DE Julius Peppers (The former UNC two-sport star was everywhere in the Panthers big MNF win finishing with three tackles, a blocked field goal and produced 1.5 sacks. Peppers has produced a career-high 12.5 this season), Baltimore Ravens Safety Ed Reed (Was everywhere on Sunday Night Football producing MVP numbers 3 tackles, 2 INTs, 1 FF – recovered it too and returned it to the house, 1 TD), Dallas Cowboys rookie RB Tashard Choice (Started in place of injured back Marion Barber, rushing for 88 yards, the most by any running back so far this season vs. the Steelers), and New England Patriots WR Wes Welker (Recorded a season-high 134 receiving yards on 12 receptions with eight of Welker’s catches going for first downs. Welker also had four receptions on New England’s 14-play game-winning drive).
Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo – It must be December, because Romo (19-36, 210, 1 TD, 3 INT, Forced Fumble) and the Cowboys are starting their end of season swoon, losing 20-13 to the Steelers. Romo provided the game’s play when Steelers CB Deshea Townsend intercepted him and ran it back 26 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 1:40 left in the game. As the Cowboys desperately scrambled to tie the game at the end, Mr. Jessica Simpson threw four straight incompletions to give the ball back to the victorious Steelers. Romo incredibly has a record of 22-4 in months other than December in his career, leaving the horrible year-end record of 4-8 in December and later including 2 playoff losses.
Giants WR Domenik Hixon – Maybe on second though the Giants do need Plaxico Burress. The suspended receiver’s replacement did not do much damage in the boxscore of the Giants 20-14 loss to the Eagles (3 catches for 30 yards with a long of 17 yards). Unfortunately for Hixon, his biggest play in the Giants first home loss of 2008 was a dropped potential 85-yard touchdown.
Detroit Lions Offensive Tackle Gosder Cherilus – In a cowardly move, the Lions high draft pick chopped Vikings defensive end Jared Allen around his knees in the open field away from the ball. Surprisingly the play didn’t draw a flag, however Allen had to be restrained from getting to Cherilus. Immediately after the play, Lions FB Moran Norris was ejected for swiping at LB Napoleon Harris.
Cleveland Browns QB Ken Dorsey — Maybe the former University of Miami star should have stayed in college at the “U”. I cannot believe that quarterbacks like former Oklahoma quarterback Paul Thompson can’t get a job in the NFL when sorry guys like Dorsey are allowed to sit on rosters. Dorsey was inept subbing for injured starter Derek Anderson finishing with weak numbers 22-43, 150 yards, 0 TD, and1 INT. I am even hearing whispers that Browns kick returner Joshua Cribbs, a former Kent State star dual-threat quarterback, may get a look at the end of the season to replace Dorsey.
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)