Luckily for the league, Sunday and Monday brought some much better games that kept people glued to their seats through Monday Night’s much-anticipated battle between the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots.
Putting aside the blowouts, which have become too prevalent throughout the 2009 season (49ers over Jaguars 20-3, Bills over Dolphins 31-14, Chargers over Chiefs 43-14, and Vikings over Bears, 36-10), there were story lines and great performances aplenty to keep everyone filled when their turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes ran out. There were five games that were decided by three points or less, including a game-winning touchdown on the last play of the game and an overtime thriller.
With only five games left to be played for all teams, there is much more separation left to do within the league’s standings before January’s playoffs.
There are still the “Have’s” (six teams with eight wins or more, including the league’s two undefeated teams—Colts and Saints both 11-0) and the “Have Not's” (seven teams with three or less wins, who are now basically spoilers), but the majority of the league (19 teams) are still caught in the parity-laden middle with records ranging from 7-4 to 4-7, including former 2008 playoff teams:
Arizona Cardinals (7-4), Philadelphia Eagles (7-4), NY Giants (6-5), Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5), Baltimore Ravens (6-5), Atlanta Falcons (6-5), Tennessee Titans (5-6), and Carolina Panthers (4-7).
It is time for the “Contenders” and “Pretenders” to pick and choose their status in the league’s last six weeks. There are 12 coveted playoff spots up for grabs and you have to expect that some teams will soon be giving thanks this Thanksgiving holiday for their opportunity in the playoffs.
The Quest for Perfection Continues
The NFL’s two unbeaten squads (New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts) stayed that way for another week. It is the first time in league history there are two teams at 11-0.
For the second straight week, the two unbeatens couldn’t have played more disparaging games, but in the end, both teams are on the threshold of greatness. I am not saying that the 1972 Miami Dolphins (perfect 17-0 including a Super Bowl win) or the 2007 New England Patriots (perfect 16-0 in the regular season) need to worry just yet, but both the Saints and Colts are moving close to their neighborhoods.
The Colts kept their record unblemished and won their 20th straight game despite falling behind by scores 17-0 and 20-7 (halftime) to the upstart Houston Texans. It was their fifth consecutive win when trailing in the fourth quarter.
Led by QB Peyton Manning (27-35, 244 YDS, 3 TDs, 2 INTs), who has a passer rating of 113.9 in fourth quarters this season, the Colts went on a 21-0 run and outscored the Texans 28-7 in the second half on their way to a thrilling 35-27 win in Houston, their sixth straight win over the Texans.
Many players contributed to the Colts’ win, including rookie starting corner Jerraud Powers (third round pick from Auburn), but no player probably came up bigger than LB Clint Session who had a 27-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Session read the eyes of struggling Texans quarterback Matt Schaub and jumped the route for an easy game-changing pick-six.
The Colts clinched the AFC South with the win and the Jaguars’ loss to the 49ers (can you believe it? In only 11 games!). Now Jim Caldwell’s team may soon be sitting out some veterans so that they can heal up for the playoffs.
The Colts are also, only one win shy of tying the Patriots’ record of 21 straight regular season wins set in 2006-08. With 11 wins, Caldwell tied Steve Mariucci for the most consecutive wins by a rookie head coach since 1950. Indianapolis has won 11 games for the seventh straight year, an NFL record, and they can also extend their current NFL record of six straight seasons with 12 wins or more with one more victory.
The Colts' win was thrilling, but the Monday Night Football matchup of the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots was much more anticipated.
In a game that some people were calling, “The Battle of the Bayou,” or "Super Bowl XLIII ¾," many people—including yours truly—thought that the Saints’ magic carpet ride would end to Bill Belichick’s three-time Super Bowl champion Patriots. But to the chagrin of Saints’ doubters, Sean Payton’s high-octane team quickly made the Patriots look old and confused, while turning this game into a laugher.
In stunning fashion the Saints whipped New England in a 38-17 rout. Playing without former 2006 first-round pick Reggie Bush, the Saints didn’t miss a beat as they piled up 480 yards of total offense and easily scored 38 points.
Luckily for the Patriots, the Saints were in cruise control for much of the fourth quarter and New England agreed, putting in their backups to end the game.
Though the Saints will try to downplay the significance of the win, there is no doubt that they wanted to prove to the rest of the league that they are the “Real Deal.”
They did make a statement with the win, because this wasn’t the Bucs, Seahawks, or any other lower-level NFL squad that the Saints dismantled. This was the big, bad New England Patriots, who have won over 105 games this decade and recently only lost to the Colts by one point just a couple of weeks ago. To put it plain and simple: The Saints are a scary bunch who jumped all over the Patriots and never let up.
With 407 points scored through 11 games, they are approaching the exclusive NFL +500-point club.
The 1999 St. Louis Rams (529 points scored and Super Bowl champs), 1998 Minnesota Vikings (556 points scored and a record of 15-1), and 2007 New Patriots (NFL record 589 points score and 16-0 AFC Champs) better watch out as the 2009 Saints are a force to be reckoned with.
I don’t know about you, but from my TV it looked like the Saints were the best team in the NFL in all three phases of the game, and of course MVP candidate QB Drew Brees (see Game Balls) led the way as he had a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3 for the contest, while averaging an amazing 16.1 yards per pass attempt.
Brees, who was only sacked once, spread the ball around to seven different pass-catchers including explosive receivers Marques Colston, Devrey Henderson, and Robert Meachem, who each caught a touchdown.
The Saints offense wasn’t the only story of the game as their defense basically shutdown the NFL’s second-ranked offense coming into the game. Using a variety of blitzes and coverage's, the Saints made Patriots QB Tom Brady (21-36 for 237 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions) look very average. The Patriots were limited to 17 points and a third down efficiency of only 4-13 (30 percent), while turning the ball over three times (two INTs and one lost fumble).
The New Orleans defense recorded two sacks and everyone contributed, even 33-year-old CB Mike McKenzie (three tackles and one INT), who was signed by the Saints last week.
A very telling stat was that the Saints held Patriots wide receivers Wes Welker and Randy Moss to a combined nine catches for 99 yards and no touchdowns, with only one catch going longer than 10 yards.
The Saints have now won 11 games in a season for the first time since 1991 and could be on their way to the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Though the Vikings are only one game behind the Saints in terms of wins, New Orleans could possibly be the NFL’s best due to their explosive nature on offense, defense, and special teams.
After the game, Brees talked about how this win means a little more than your average “W." “[The win] only counts for one win on the stat sheet,” Brees said. “But emotionally, those types of wins can mean a little bit more. We played a tremendous football team tonight. They know how to win, they do things the right way.”
Though I don’t think the Saints and Colts can do the impossible of reaching the 1972 Dolphins’ perfection—too many teams getting up for a fight with the “Town Bully”—I have listed both teams remaining games below:
Saints: @WAS, @ATL, DAL, TB, @CAR
Colts: TEN, DEN, @JAC, NYJ, @BUF
V.Y. Comes of Age
Weeks ago, Titans owner Bud Adams made it clear he wanted Vince Young to replace Kerry Collins as the team’s starter and clearly he was right. Adams received his vindication after V.Y’s breakout career-high 387-yard passing performance in Tennessee's last-second 20-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals, including throwing the game-winner with no time left on the clock.
The Titans were down by a score of 17-13 late in the fourth quarter to the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals and had 99 yards to cover with only 2:37 left on the clock. Young (27-43, 387 YDS, 1 TD, 0 INTs) capped off an 18-play, 99-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to leaping rookie receiver Kenny Britt in the back of the end zone as time expired.
The most impressive part of the game-winning drive was the determination of the Titans starter. Young (23-11 as an NFL starter) completed 10 of 16 passes for 94 yards and ran for another five, while converting three fourth-downs on the drive, including the winning touchdown on 4th-and-goal from the Cardinals’ 10.
A little while ago, the former third overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft just wanted a chance to show that he was still a playmaker in the NFL, and not the perceived malcontent and potential bust that many were painting him out to be...the past five games should have shut a lot of people up.
Young has had several Steve McNair-type leadership performances making plays with his arm and legs, while leaning on MVP-candidate RB Chris Johnson (on a pace for over 2,000 yards rushing).
In their fifth straight win after an 0-6 start, the Titans also snapped Arizona’s five-game winning streak. It must have been d é jà vu all over again for Cardinals starter Matt Leinart, who had lost the 2006 Rose Bowl to Young when they were both college hotshots for USC and Texas respectively, as No. 10 left the field with another comeback victory in his hands.
Young has won nine consecutive starts going back to 2007 and he is now a perfect 5-0 as the Titans starter this season. Still, the Titans’ new unquestioned leader pointed out after the game that it was a huge “team” win. “As the Tennessee Titans, I feel we fought to the finish,” Young said.
The Titans are now 5-6 and right in the middle of the AFC’s wild-card hunt after almost no one, but themselves, thought they were still in the race. Their remaining games are: @IND, STL, MIA, SD, and @SE.
Winning Streaks Continuing
When making a playoff push, the most important thing for NFL teams is stay “hot” (i.e. produce a winning streak).
Here are some teams on a roll right now:
The Indianapolis Colts won their 20th straight
The New Orleans Saints have strung together a franchise record 11-straight wins
The San Diego Chargers maintained their lead in the AFC West by continuing their win streak of six
The Tennessee Titans have turned everything upside down by winning five games in a row, and in Week 13 they can stop the Colts’ win streak
The Minnesota Vikings currently have a four-game winning streak
The Green Bay Packers have a three-game winning streak
Conversely a few teams can’t seem to buy a win including the Cleveland Browns (lost six in a row) and Chicago Bears (lost four in a row as their quarterback keeps throwing picks).
Current Division Breakdown After Week 12
The Dallas Cowboys (8-3) have a one-game lead over the Eagles (7-4). Now is “crunch time” in the NFC East as we will see if the Cowboys will start their December swoon again.
After feasting on the lowly Raiders on Thanksgiving, Dallas’ next five games should be a lot tougher: @NYG, SD, @NO, @WAS, and PHI.
The Arizona Cardinals (7-4) have a two-game lead over the 49ers (5-6). The Cardinals better get QB Kurt Warner (concussion) back fast for their Week 14 showdown with the Niners. Arizona’s next five games are a mix of good and bad opponents: MIN, @SF, @DET, STL, and GB.
The New Orleans Saints (11-0) have a five-game lead over the Falcons (6-5). With a win in Week 13, the Saints can continue their unbeaten ways, plus claim the NFC South title.
New Orleans next five games right now make 16-0 look a little more possible: @WAS, @ATL, DAL, TB and @CAR.
The Minnesota Vikings (10-1) have a three-game lead over the Packers (7-4), plus they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker after sweeping Green Bay this season.
QB Brett Favre’s gang will continue to chase the undefeated Saints in hopes that they falter, causing the road to the Super Bowl in Miami to go through the Metrodome.
However, the Vikings have some tough playoff contenders in their remaining five games: @AR, CIN, @CAR, @CHI, and NYG.
The New England Patriots (7-4) still have a two-game lead over the Miami Dolphins (5-6) after both teams lost in Week 12. Even though the Patriots lost to the Saints, I still believe they will be a dangerous playoff team.
New England’s last five games include a Week 13 showdown with the Dolphins in Miami, CAR, @BUF, JAC, and @HOU.
The San Diego Chargers (8-3) with their 43-14 pounding of the Kansas City Chiefs maintained their one-game lead over the Denver Broncos (7-4).
I believe this will be one of the few divisional races that goes down to the wire. San Diego still has some tough games left on their schedule, and the Broncos are still in a fight @CLE, @DAL, CIN, @TEN, and WAS.
The Indianapolis Colts (11-0) won the AFC South title for 2009 as they came back for a 35-27 win over the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars lost 20-3 to the Niners. With the division sewn up it will be interesting to see if the Colts hold out some of their veterans down the stretch against TEN, DEN, @JAC, NYJ and @BUF.
The Cincinnati Bengals (8-3) increased their lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens (both 6-5) to two games. They are now a perfect 6-0 in the AFC North, but their next five games, including three road contests, should test their playoff resolve: DET, @MIN, @SD, KC, and @NYJ.
Other Contenders remaining schedules:
ATL (6-5) PHI NO @NYJ BUF @TB
BAL (6-5) @GB DET CHI @PIT @OAK
DEN (7-4) @KC @IND OAK @PHI KC
GB (7-4) BAL @CHI @PIT SEA @ARI
HOU (5-6) @JAC SEA @STL @MIA NE
JAC (6-5) HOU MIA IND @NE @CLE
MIA (5-6) NE @JAC @TEN HOU PIT
NYG (6-5) DAL PHI @WAS CAR @MIN
NYJ (5-6) @BUF @TB ATL @IND CIN
PHI (7-4) @ATL @NYG SF DEN @DAL
PIT (6-5) OAK @CLE GB BAL @MIA
SF (5-6) @SEA ARI @PHI DET @STL
TEN (5-6) @IND STL MIA SD @SEA
Concussions and Other Injuries : I say it every week, “The NFL Season is a War of Attrition” and Week 12 was another MASH unit special. Once again concussions were a huge factor in players leaving the field.
Players suffering concussions were Philadelphia Eagles WR DeSean Jackson, Chicago Bears CB Charles Tillman, and NY Giants RB Danny Ware.
The multitude of other front line injuries included: Broncos WR/KR Eddie Royal (thigh), Chicago Bears LB Lance Briggs (knee), Chicago Bears OT Orlando Pace (groin), Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan (toe), NY Giants QB Eli Manning (foot), Carolina Panthers QB Jake Delhomme (finger), Atlanta Falcons RB Michael Turner (ankle), Browns DL Shaun (right ankle/Achilles tendon), Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo (back), Washington Redskins CB Fred Smoot (head), and Washington Redskins FB Mike Sellers (hamstring).
Thanksgiving Rest : A great thing for teams playing on Thanksgiving is that they get a nice long 10-day rest before their next game.
“Playing on Thanksgiving is a big plus because it gives those teams extra days off heading into December and that can play a major role in how well a team performs,” said former Cowboys RB and current Fox analyst Darryl “Moose” Johnston, who played in nine Thanksgiving Day games.
“The extra days off will give players more time to get healthy and come out fresh that first Sunday in December. They need to fight through soreness from the previous week’s games to get ready for Thursday, but it will be well worth it. Especially if your team is on the winning end.”
I also heard that Cowboys QB Tony Romo and WR Miles Austin used their time off to go to Vegas, baby!
New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees : Look out Peyton and Brett as Drew may be the leader for the 2009 NFL MVP award. Brees completed 18-23 passes for 371 yards with five touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating.
The Saints piled up 480 yards of total offense and they even took it easy on the poor Patriots in the fourth quarter. Brees now leads the NFL with 27 touchdown passes and has thrown for at least 300 yards in his last five games on Monday Night Football.
Minnesota Vikings QB Brett Favre: The 40-year-old veteran signal caller gets better each week. Favre tied former Minnesota Vikings DL Jim Marshall’s NFL record for most consecutive games played by a position player (282) in the Vikings dominating 36-10 win over the Chicago Bears.
No. 4 stayed in the MVP race by throwing for 392 yards and three TDs and he finished just 10 yards short of his career high for passing yards. The Vikings amassed 537 total yards, which was the most yards a team has racked up against Chicago since 1982.
Buffalo Bills Terrell Owens: For the second week in a row T.O. came to play and it now looks like he is feeling comfortable in Buffalo. Owens had his second straight Pro Bowl-type game finishing with five catches for 96 yards and a touchdown.
Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick hooked up with Owens on a 51-yard touchdown that gave the Bills a 24-14 lead and basically allowed them to cruise to a 31-14 win over the Dolphins. For the season T.O.’s numbers are 40 receptions for 659 YDS, 16.5 AVG, and three TDs.
Tennessee Titans RB Chris Johnson: The second year speedster became just the third player to rush for 125 yards in six straight games, with 154 yards rushing in the Titans’ 20-17 win. Johnson’s showed his sub 4.3 speed by running for an 85-yard touchdown and he also joined Hall-of-Famer Earl Campbell as the only players in franchise history with six straight 100-yard rushing games.
Cincinnati Bengals RB Larry Johnson : Welcome back, welcome back. Johnson, playing in his first game for the Bengals since the Kansas City Chiefs said, "Take a hike," looked like his old 2005 self in his team’s 16-7 win over the Cleveland Browns.
Johnson carried the ball 22 times for 107 yards in relief of injured starter Cedric Benson. The 100-yard game was the former Penn State runner’s first since Dec. 21, 2008 against the Miami Dolphins. As a team the Bengals produced 210 yards.
Denver Broncos DE Elvis Dumervil : The former Louisville pass rusher dominated against the NY Giants on Thanksgiving. Dumervil finished with five tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble in a 26-6 win over the Giants. Dumervil now has 14 sacks on the season, which leads the NFL.
New York Jets CB Darrelle Revis : The former Pitt corner showed why he is one of the NFL’s best cover corners as he held Carolina Panthers RB Steve Smith to one catch for five yards. Revis also intercepted Carolina Panthers struggling QB Jake Delhomme twice.
Cleveland Browns WR/KR Josh Cribbs had 38 kickoff return yards to become the first player in NFL history to amass 1,000 kickoff return yards in each of his first five seasons.
Tennessee Titans QB Vince Young , the Titans’ new first-team quarterback almost threw for 400 yards and won his ninth start in a row in a comeback win over the Arizona Cardinals.
New York Jets safety Kerry Rhodes responded to being benched by picking off two passes in a 17-6 win against Carolina.
Arizona Cardinals DL Darnell Dockett had three sacks and eight tackles in the Cardinals loss to the Titans.
Buffalo Bills interim head coach Perry Fewell won his first game as an NFL head coach by starting RB Fred Jackson and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Miami Dolphins OLB Joey Porter produced 2.5 sacks and six tackles in the Bills win over the Dolphins.
Minnesota Vikins DE Jared Allen had two sacks in the Vikings win over the Bears.
Tennessee Titans WR Kenny Britt overcame a critical fourth-quarter fumble to make a leaping catch for the game’s winning score. The 2009 first rounder finished with seven catches for a career-high 128 receiving yards and one TD.
Colts LB Clint Session had a 27-yard interception for a touchdown and finished with a team-high nine tackles in the Colts win over the Texans.
San Diego Chargers TE Antonio Gates had seven catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns in the Chargers 43-14 win over the KC Chiefs.
Baltimore Ravens WR Mark Clayton caught a season-high 129 yards on seven receptions in the Ravens win over the Steelers.
New Orleans safety Darren Sharper grabbed his eighth interception of the season—tied for the NFL lead—in the Saints win over the Patriots.
Carolina Panthers QB Jake Delhomme : Another awful performance for the quarterback that the Panthers gave a ton of money to in the offseason. Delhomme threw four interceptions and had a passer rating of 12.7 in the Panthers 17-6 loss to the NY Jets.
The former Super Bowl quarterback now has 18 INTs for the season and it looks like either backup quarterback A.J. Feeley or Matt Moore will be starting soon.
Delhomme has five multi-interception games in his 11 starts this season.
New York Giants RB Brandon Jacobs: I guess Big Jake’s wallet is weighing him down after his huge offseason extension. Jacobs only ran for 27 yards on 11 carries—his lowest output this season—in the Broncos win over the NY Giants. His numbers for the year now stand at 174 rushes for 683 yards, 3.9 ypr average, and three TDs.
The Chicago Bears: The Bears were horrible in their 36-10 loss to the host Minnesota Vikings. Their defense allowed 537 yards—the most by Chicago in 27 years. Matters got even worse when injured linebacker Brian Urlacher questioned the team’s direction in an interview with Yahoo! Sports .
Some memorable things Urlacher said were, “Look, I love Jay, and I understand he’s a great player who can take us a long way, and I still have faith in him, but I hate the way our identity has changed. We used to establish the run and wear teams down and try not to make mistakes, and we’d rely on our defense to keep us in the game and make big plays to put us in position to win. Kyle Orton might not be the flashiest quarterback, but the guy is a winner, and that formula worked for us. I hate to say it, but that’s the truth.”
The Bears won 13 games under beleaguered head coach Lovie Smith during their 2006 Super Bowl run, but have only four wins this season.
Detroit Lions rookie DB Louis Delmas : Green Bay Packers TE Jermichael Finley claims the Lions rookie laid a dirty play on him in the second quarter of the Packers-Lions Thanksgiving game.
The incident happened when Packers QB Aaron Rodgers sailed a pass high of Finley over the middle and Delmas took it out on his chest. The hard-hitting safety was penalized, but the Packers were not happy about the dance he did after the hit. Rodgers said of the play, "[Finley] was unprotected. So don’t go dancing around. You hit a guy who’s unprotected.”
Atlanta Falcons K Jason Elam : The 40-year-old kicker continues to struggle, even with the Falcons auditioning for his replacement. He was 2-3 in the Falcons victory over the one-win Bucs. Despite kicking in a dome, Elam is just 10-16 on field goal attempts this season and also has a PAT.
Minnesota Vikings RB Adrian Peterson : I know he is the best running back in the NFL, but "All-Day" needs to hold on to the ball better. Peterson (85 rushing yards and two TDs) fumbled twice (and lost one of them) in the Vikings win over the Bears. The Vikings All-Pro also could have lost a third fumble, but it was overruled on replay.
Miami Dolphins QB Chad Henne : Was awful in the Dolphins loss to the Bills. Henne never posed a passing threat and the Bills grabbed three INTs.
Philadelphia Eagles Head Coach Andy Reid : What were you thinking giving the hapless Redskins life by going for an onside kick on the game’s open play? The onside kick was recovered by Washington’s Quinton Ganther to set up the ‘Skins opening touchdown.
The Jacksonville Jaguars Offense : In their loss to the Niners, the Jaguars failed to score on four trips inside the 20-yard line. The Jags’ offensive line also allowed six sacks of battered QB David Garrard including two that produced two lost fumbles in the red zone.
Cleveland Browns QB Brady Quinn : After playing well against the Lions, “Bad Quinn” was back as he threw for just 100 yards on 15-34 passes. Quinn’s effort marked the sixth time this season the Browns’ quarterbacks haven't surpassed 100 yards.
Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler : Was awful again and the Bears may want average quarterback Kyle Orton back. Cutler’s passing numbers were 18-23 for 147 yards, one TD, and two INTs. The former Bronco leads the NFL with a career-high 20 interceptions including 15 in the last seven games.
NFL Week 12
THU, Nov. 26
Green Bay (7-4) over Detroit (2-9), 34-12
Dallas (8-3) over Oakland (3-8), 24-7
Denver (7-4) over NY Giants (6-5), 26-6
SUN, Nov. 29
49ers (5-6) over Jaguars (6-5), 20-3
Bengals (8-3) over Browns (1-10), 16-7
Bills (4-7) over Dolphins (5-6), 31-14
Chargers (8-3) over Chiefs (3-8), 43-14
Colts (11-0) over Texans (5-6), 35-27
Eagles (7-4) over Redskins (3-8), 27-24
Falcons (6-5) over Buccaneers (1-10), 20-17
Jets (5-6) over Panthers (4-7), 17-6
Seahawks (4-7) over Rams (1-10), 27-17
Titans (5-6) over Cardinals (7-4), 20-17
Vikings (10-1) over Bears (4-7), 36-10
Ravens (6-5) over Steelers (6-5), 20-17 in OT (SNF)
MON, Nov. 30
Saints (11-0) over Patriots (7-4), 38-17
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).