I am calling Week 14 of the 2009 NFL season, “Do or Die Week”, as several “on the bubble” teams can either join the push toward the playoffs or start planning for their off-season this week.
Though the NFL is still full of the “Haves” (10 teams with eight wins or more including the league’s two undefeated teams—Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints both 12-0) and the “Have Nots” (eight teams with four or less wins, who are now basically spoilers). There are still a multidude of teams (14) currently in the league’s parity-laden middle (records ranging from 7-5 to 5-7), who are still are playoff dreaming, even if some are by a thread.
“It’s that time of the year, the last quarter,” said Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid, who just received a 3-year extension. “If you’re still in the hunt, things get a little faster, guys play a little faster and so on. That’s the nature of the game. That’s where we’re at."
Overall, 26 teams are still mathematically in playoff contention, so let the race for the NFL’s 10 remaining playoff berths continue. The Saints and Colts already have claimed two of the league’s 12 coveted spots.
The most important thing in the month of December around the NFL is to keep winning. Teams that are strong contenders for the playoffs need to keep putting up wins to "Get In," on-the-bubble teams need to keep winning to survive, and the teams already having clinched playoff spots want to stay "hot” entering the postseason.
“We always look to play our best football in December,” said San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who leads the NFL in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in December since 2000. “That’s when we want to be at our best. We focus more in December because we know what’s coming up.”
Tomlinson and his Chargers probably know better than any team in the NFL right now the value of winning in the year’s last month. Dating back to a 24-21 win at Buffalo on December 3, 2006, the San Diego Chargers have won an NFL-record 15 consecutive games in December. Prior to the Chargers’ current streak, the record was held by the Dallas Cowboys, who won 13 consecutive December games during a run that spanned from 1968 to 1972.
Tomlinson added, “We seem to finish strong. We’ve talked about it and really made it one of our mottos. I think that has a lot to do with our mindsets in December. We want to play our best football in December going into January”.
Even with the Chargers (9-3) current eight-game winning streak, they still are not at the top of the NFL’s food chain due to the success of the undefeated Saints and Colts, who are reaching new heights in NFL history together. The two unblemished teams are the first two 12-0 teams in league history to have that record within the same season. This week, the Colts take on the Denver Broncos in key AFC playoff matchup and several streaks will be on the line for Indy.
The Colts, of course, will be attempting to extend their 12-0 start plus they will be trying to break a tie with the 2006-08 New England Patriots for the longest streak in NFL history (21 games). This season the Colts have been resilent to say the least, and so far they have overcome a fourth-quarter deficit six times in 2009. With one more fourth quarter comeback by MVP candidate QB Peyton Manning and the rest of the Colts, Indy will become the first team since the AFL-NFL merger (1970) with seven such comeback wins in one season.
The Saints—leading the NFL with 440 points scored with an average of 36.6 ppg—also are etching their names on some records too. With four games to play, they need to score 60 points to join the NFL’s elite 500-points in one season club that includes the 1998 Minnesota Vikings (556), 1999 St. Louis Rams (526), 2000 St. Louis Rams (540), 2001 St. Louis Rams (503), and 2007 New England Patriots (NFL Record 582 points scored).
However as good as both undefeated teams have been, they better watch their step this week as only five teams have made it to 13-0 in NFL History: 1972 Dolphins, 2007 New England Patriots, 2005 Indianapolis Colts, 1998 Denver Broncos, and 1934 Chicago Bears. Even with having such outstanding records to this point, nothing is guaranteed for the Saints or Colts, as the five 13-0 teams have had varying end of season success. Only the 1972 Dolphins and 1998 Broncos ended up their 13-0 season starts with an NFL title.
I think a lot of fans and media are hoping that both the Saints and Colts can ride into Miami for Super Bowl XLIV with perfect 18-0 records. But if I have learned anything from my years covering the NFL, it is that nothing is predictable about the world’s most popular league. Since 1990, only 17 of 36 number one seeds in the playoffs have made it to the Super Bowl, with only eight of those teams winning it all. The last time two No. 1 seeds faced-off was in 1993 for Super Bowl XXVIII with Buffalo against Dallas.
There was an interesting factoid from last week that further showed nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. By virtue of the Saints clinching the NFC South last week, 2009 marks the seventh consecutive season that at least one team has gone from last place to first place in its division from one year to the next, the longest streak in NFL history. Of the 32 teams to go from “worst-to-first” in NFL annals, 15 of them have done so in this decade (2000-2009). So right now, with 63 regular season games left to be played, I don’t think anyone has an idea of who is going to represent the AFC and NFC in the Super Bowl. It could be the Chargers and Saints, Colts and Giants, Broncos and Eagles, Bengals and Cardinals, Colts and Vikings, Chargers and Cardinals or any of a number of combinations.
But teams right now need to take one game at a time and focus on “successful” team tenants: strong quarterback play (i.e. taking care of the football), good attacking defense that produces turnovers, a balanced offensive attack based first in the run, sound special teams play, limiting penalties/turnovers, and just plain “want-to."
This week’s Thursday Night Football game between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers also showed the unpredictable nature of the NFL.
BTW: I cannot stand games on Thursdays as too often the short week lends to sloppy boring games.
The Steelers came into the game having lost four straight games, but surely the 2008 Super Bowl Champs would beat up on the one-win Cleveland Browns (defense ranked 32nd overall going into Week 14). The Steelers had won 12 straight against the Browns, so Thursday Night should have been P-Burgh’s re-entry into the playoff dance. But hold-up, wait a minute…as no one told the Browns that they were not supposed to show-up.
On a bitterly cold night (temperatures in the teens, with a 20 mph wind that produced subzero wind chills), where you wouldn’t blame Eric Mangini’s team for quitting, the Browns dug deep for a tough 13-6 win that sent the defending champs to their sixth straight loss—their longest losing streak in six years. The Browns (2-11) sacked Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger eight times on their way to beating their hated rival in Cleveland for the first time since 2000.
The man of the hour for the Browns was Wildcat QB/WR/KR Josh Cribbs, who rushed for 87 yards out of the wildcat formation, had 104 return yards and caught one pass for nine yards. Cribbs never let the cold get him down as he badly wanted to beat the Steelers (6-7) for the first time in his career. The former Kent State dual threat quarterback picked up probably the game’s biggest first down on a tough 14-yard run in the fourth quarter when the Browns were winding the clock. Of the win, and the Steelers’ long ride back to Pittsburgh, Cribbs said, “They’re going to hear that bus’ engine all the way back”. The Steelers are now pretty much on the outside looking in on the playoffs and you can point directly to their three recent upset losses to the Chiefs, Raiders, and Browns—a combined record of 9-28—as a reason you can never pencil in wins in the NFL.
I also wanted to remind fans to vote for their favorite players, as balloting for the 2010 Pro Bowl will conclude soon http://www.nfl.com/probowl/ballot.
Some key games that will either make or break a team’s playoff hopes include:
Philadelphia Eagles at NY Giants
In a highly anticipated NFC East black-and-blue game, the Eagles will travel up the turnpike to face the rejuvenated NY Giants on NBC Sunday Night Football. Here in NFC East country, this is the number one game on everyone’s mind.
The Giants are looking for payback for the Eagles knocking them out of 2008 playoffs in a disappointing home loss.
“This will be a big game,” said New York head coach Tom Coughlin this week. “It’s a division game, against the Eagles, at this time of year. December is such a critical time for all the teams in our league.”
The Eagles (8-4 and on a 3-game winning streak) are currently tied with the Dallas Cowboys atop the division, but with thoughts of the Cowboys going in the tank again in December, both the Birds and Giants want to capitalize. To me, this game is for the NFC East title even though three more games will need to be played after this one. Expect a tough physical game, as it should be cold and windy in the Meadowlands at game time.
The biggest key of the game will be the quarterbacks, as Eagles QB Donovan McNabb (has won 10 of his past 14 starts against NY, including the playoffs) and Giants QB Eli Manning (passing numbers: 225-379, 2,925 yards, 20 TDs, and 11 INTs) have faced off many times and usually the team that wins is the one with the passer that makes bigger plays.
In the Eagles November win over Giants, McNabb hit explosive WR DeSean Jackson for a 54-yard touchdown and the game was never the same. Watch for turnovers as the Eagles are plus-12 in turnover ratio (3rd in the NFL) while the Giants have a rating of minus-1. On defense, the Eagles will look for CB Asante Samuel (7 INTs this season) to make a big play and conversely the Giants need to get pressure from their front four led by DE Justin Tuck (G-Men have won 11 in row when he has more than one sack). One of two Eagles streaks will prevail in this game. Philadelphia has thrived in December with a record of 12-3 since 2006, but the Birds are also (1-7) on Sunday Night Football.
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons
With their season on the line, the Falcons maybe facing “Mission Impossible” when the high-flying undefeated New Orleans Saints come to town for a huge NFC South game. The Saints could quite possibly be the best team in the NFL, but they will need to be on their guard as Atlanta still has some fight left.
The key will be whether the Falcons get back their injured offensive weapons QB Matt Ryan (turf tow) and RB Michael Turner (ankle). Last week, the Eagles had no problems with the depleted Falcons. However the Saints are undefeated and the Falcons would like nothing more than to stop their streak and inch back into the NFC wildcard race. Watch for Saints QB Drew Brees and his track team of pass catchers (Meachem, Henderson, Colston, Moore, Bush, Shockey, and others) to light up the NFL’s 29th rated pass defense. Plain and simple, if struggling back-up QB Chris Redman starts for the Falcons, this game will be a “laugher” for the Saints who are looking to wrap up a first round playoff bye with a win.
Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts
It is time for the Broncos to show if they are truly a playoff contender as they travel to Indy to face the undefeated Colts. I love this matchup, because it has a playoff feel to it.
Both teams are making their playoff push, and the Broncos (8-4 and have won two in a row) want to show they can play with the “Big Boys” in the AFC. The Colts have so many streaks on the line, but they better be careful as the Broncos still have a good chance of winning the AFC West or claiming one of the AFC’s wildcards. The matchup I will be most interested in is the battle of two future hall of famers: Colts QB Peyton Manning’s offense versus Broncos safety Brian Dawkins defense (NFL’s second ranked pass defense). Watch for the Broncos to continue running the football with their two-headed monster (rookie Knowshon Moreno and veteran Correll Buckhalter ran for 199 yards last week) as QB Kyle Orton (torn ligaments in ankle) is banged up.
San Diego Chargers at Dallas Cowboys
Simple and plain, the Dallas Cowboys season is on the line. The Cowboys are sick of everyone talking about a December Swoon (5-9 since QB Tony Romobecame the full-time starter), so now it is time for them to turn-up the heat in Jerry Jones billion-dollar playground. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they are playing the red-hot Chargers, who are on an eight-game winning streak and are 15-0 in December going back to 2006. The key will be whether Romo (392-yard passing last week) and WR Miles Austin can hook up for some big plays against the Chargers stingy defense led by LB Shawne Merriman. Also watch for Chargers Pro Bowl QB Philip Rivers throwing the ball against the Cowboys’ 20th ranked defense. A final storyline to this game is that Romo has been enlisted to hold for struggling kicker Nick Foulk. Remember the last time “butterfingers” held for kicks causing Dallas to lose 21-20 to the Seattle Seahawks in a 2006 Wildcard Game.
Other Games of Interest
Miami Dolphins at Jacksonville
In a “Battle for Florida” special, the Jaguars will host the Dolphins and it should be a good one as both teams are making their playoff push. The Dolphins have shelved the “Wildcat” for QB Chad Henne throwing the ball and the Jags will be looking for a big game from Maurice Jones-Drew aka “Pocket Hercules."
Carolina Panthers at New England Patriots
With the Dolphins and Jets getting dangerously close, the Patriots will need to find their playoff pedigree when they host the Carolina Panthers this week. The Patriots have lost three games in a row and they desperately want to get their swagger back to stay in the lead in the AFC East.
The key will be the Patriots defense stopping the run and getting pressure on Panthers QB Matt Moore (Pats only have 20 sacks this year). Maybe new daddy Patriots QB Tom Brady and his favorite targets (WRs Wes Welker and Randy Moss) can get back on track in the bad weather of New England. Watch for corners Leigh Bodden (Patriots) and Chris Gamble (Panthers) making big plays in this game.
Cincinnati Bengals at Minnesota Vikings
In a true test that will show the NFL where the Bengals stand in the league’s pecking order, Cincy will hit the road to the Metrodome to face the angry Vikings. Hard to believe, but could this improbable pairing of two soon-to-be divison winners be a preview to Super Bowl XLIV in Miami. I lover the matchup of RBs Bengals Cedric Benson and the Vikings Adrian Peterson in this game. Benson is rejuvenated and looks like the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year, and Peterson is a workhorse. Both pass defenses should be tested on the Metrodome’s fast track, so expect the Bengals Chad Ochocinco (what will he do next?) and Vikings WRs Percy Harvin, Benard Berrian, and Sidney Rice to have huge games. Also watch for the play of Vikings veteran QB Brett Favre, who finally had a bit of a hiccup last week (2 INTs in a loss).
Week 14 Games
Thursday, December 10
Browns (2-11) over Steelers (6-7), 13-6
Sunday, December 13
New Orleans (12-0) at Atlanta (6-6), 1:00 PM (FOX)
Green Bay (8-4) at Chicago (5-7), 1:00 PM (FOX)
St. Louis (1-11) at Tennessee (5-7), 1:00 PM (FOX)
Denver (8-4) at Indianapolis (12-0), 1:00 PM (CBS)
Buffalo (4-8) at Kansas City (3-9), 1:00 PM (CBS)
NY Jets (6-6) at Tampa Bay (1-11), 1:00 PM (CBS)
Miami (6-6) at Jacksonville (7-5), 1:00 PM (CBS)
Detroit (2-10) at Baltimore (6-6), 1:00 PM (FOX)
Seattle (5-7) at Houston (5-7), 1:00 PM (FOX)
Cincinnati (9-3) at Minnesota (10-2), 1:00 PM (CBS)
Carolina (5-7) at New England (7-5), 1:00 PM (FOX)
Washington (3-9) at Oakland (4-8) 4:05 PM (FOX)
San Diego (9-3) at Dallas (8-4), 4:15 PM (CBS)
Philadelphia (8-4) at NY Giants (7-5), 8:20 PM (NBC)
Monday, December 14
Arizona (8-4) at San Francisco (5-7), 8:30 PM (ESPN)
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)