By Andy Benoit, NFLTouchdown.com
San Diego Chargers 52, Denver Broncos 21
The Chargers are obviously that "hot team that nobody wants to face" right now, but that doesn't mean they deserve to be in the playoffs. San Diego is three games behind New England in the standings, making them the beneficiaries of a flawed playoff system.
The reason Denver is not in the postseason is that six members of their defensive front seven shouldn't be starting in the NFL. San Diego's 289 yards rushing reaffirmed this.
LaDainian Tomlinson looks fresh, and so does Antonio Gates. Factor in the resurgence of the Charger offensive line and, suddenly, Norv Turner is a genius again.
Darren Sproles might be the best backup running back in the league right now. I'd be a little careful in describing him with the word "special" though.
In Week 2 Brandon Marshall caught 18 passes against the Chargers, which inspired me to refer to Antonio Cromartie as "Mrs. Brandon Marshall." But Sunday night, Cromartie and the rest of the Charger defense limited Marshall to just 55 yards on six catches. Cromartie's unflattering epithet is officially revoked.
Philadelphia Eagles 44, Dallas Cowboys 6
Everyone will talk about Tony Romo's meltdowns in December and Wade Phillips's lack of authority. Both subjects are fair, but neither encompasses the depth of the problem in Big D. Prominent as the Cowboys franchise is, it's a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game in 13 seasons. They haven't had a winning record in December during that span either, and they've lost their last nine season finales overall.
The overriding difference in this contest was coaching. Despite not knowing all week if this game would hold any significance to them, the Eagle players were far more prepared than the Cowboy players. Jim Johnson toyed with Jason Garrett all afternoon, and Andy Reid instilled emotion and fire into his men, while Wade Phillips stood by with a look of bewilderment on his face.
Roy Williams, who spoke out about not getting the ball enough earlier in the week, was absolutely pathetic in this game. (Some reports have said that Williams has a foot injury.)
Pac Man Jones is a tremendous athlete who plays hard, but it's obvious no one has ever had the gall to coach him. His fundamentals and awareness are nowhere near an NFL level.
Before the season began, we thought that this might be one final hurrah for several familiar veterans in Philly. But now, Donovan McNabb looks worthy of a new long-term contract, Brian Westbrook doesn't seem doomed to hit the 30-year-old running back wall, offensive tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas continue to be remarkably consistent each week and Brian Dawkins looks every bit the Pro Bowler that he is.
The Eagles continue to get great play out of their front seven. Replacing Omar Gaither with Akeem Jordan has helped.
Baltimore Ravens 27, Jacksonville Jaguars 7
Last year, Baltimore, on their way to a 5-11 season, lost at Miami in Week 14. It was the Dolphins' only win on the season. Now both teams are set to square off in the Wild Card round this Sunday. We might be looking at the most unlikely playoff matchup in NFL history.
Neither Ray Lewis nor Ed Reed will contend for the Defensive Players of the Year award, but ask yourself, Where would the Ravens be without these two?
Guys like Derrick Mason are what wins championships. The überconsistent veteran gutted out a bum shoulder to catch six passes for 77 yards in this game.
If Matt Ryan weren't so darn good, we'd be talking about Joe Flacco as NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Jacksonville's VP of Football Operations Shack Harris shouldn't be taking the fall for this team's '08 disaster. If Jacksonville weren't a well-constructed team, people wouldn't be so disappointed with their results. Harris did his job; there were coaches and players who didn't do theirs.
Miami Dolphins 24, New York Jets 17
The Fins deserve to be heralded as one of the greatest turnaround stories in pro football history. There are four reasons for their resurgence: 1. Bill Parcells worked his magic. 2. (Pardon the cliché, but) Tony Sparano changed the culture. 3. Chad Pennington glued Parcells' and Sparano's efforts together. 4. Miami was never as bad as their 1-15 record to begin with.
Some of the biggest news of the week came Sunday morning when ESPN's Chris Mortensen revealed that Bill Parcells could take $9 million and walk away should Wayne Huizenga successfully sell the team. Keep a close eye on this story.
Eric Mangini does not deserve to be fired. He got the Jets to the postseason his first year on the job, and this season, despite the disastrous final month, New York still improved their record by five games.
As a sportswriter, you don't want to be one of the yokels who wrongly stated that Brett Favre was done. But I think he is. In recent years, Favre's age has caught up to him late in the season. Of course, any talk about Favre's future requires an obligatory grain of salt. The grain of salt here is that Favre and Mangini never quite seemed to be on the same page. With the head coach out, perhaps the quarterback will be more inclined to stay. This is just speculation…
Arizona Cardinals 34, Seattle Seahawks 21
This was a big win for the Cards. Their fans came to University of Phoenix Stadium ready to boo. Arizona's victory was against a bad Seattle team, but they'll take the season-ending high note any way they can get it. Being over .500 legitimizes Arizona's presence in January.
Ken Whisenhunt deserves a lot of credit for having the humility to reinsert Edgerrin James into the lineup. Whisenhunt made the bold move of benching the prolific veteran two months ago. But fifth-round rookie Tim Hightower (2.8 ypc) was an enormous bust as a starter. So, on Sunday, James carried the ball 14 times and, with fresh legs, rewarded Whisenhunt by gaining 100 yards on the ground.
San Francisco 49ers 27, Washington Redskins 24
Great move by the Niners to lock up Mike Singletary. The Hall of Fame linebacker did an outstanding job as an interim coach and now has his modus operandi already instilled in this organization. That gives the team a head start on its long-term future.
I've heard that 49ers management, and not Singletary, wants Martz out. I find it hard to believe that the new head coach isn't pushing for this as well. Martz and Singletary seem to have a vinegar vs. oil approach to offensive football.
Oakland Raiders 31, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24
They're not the Dallas Cowboys, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers officially have a finishing problem. Going 0-4 in the final quarter of this season kept the Bucs out of the playoffs. Last year, they were bounced out of the Wild Card round after locking up the division too soon, resting their guys and finishing the year 1-3.
Can someone explain to me why Jeff Garcia isn't likely to be back with this club in '09? Is it because his 91.7 passer rating is too high? Is it because he makes too many plays late in games? Might it have something to do with his leadership and ability to play through pain? Oh wait, I know…it must be because the Bucs have all kinds of better options awaiting them under center, right?
My heart was in my throat watching Cadillac Williams leave the field with what appeared to be a very serious knee injury. It wasn't the same knee that Williams hurt before, but it is believed that he suffered an identical injury (torn patellar tendon). Judging by Williams's frustration, it seemed like an unfortunately familiar experience for him.
The Bucs defense was never the same after Monte Kiffin decided to join his son in Knoxville.
We (I) have made fun of Tom Cable all year, but I'll say this: Oakland improved under his guidance, and these Raider players compete hard for him. I'm still not sure Cable's worthy of a fulltime head coaching job, but he's certainly worthy of a serious interview.
Carolina Panthers 33, New Orleans Saints 31
Huge win for the Panthers. The Atlanta Falcons had fought off the St. Louis Rams just seconds before John Kasey kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired, meaning Carolina's victory is what gave them the bye week that we all thought they'd for sure have.
Forget what I said at midseason. Steve Smith is the best receiver in the NFL. Period. The deep catch he made on the final drive to set up Kasey's field gold was remarkable. Smith is arguably the league's most lethal weapon running after the catch, and yet, his greatest strength, at 5'9", might be snagging the jump ball.
The only thing more surprising that DeAngelo Williams's 1,515-yard season on the ground is the fact that it didn't come a year ago. Williams was an elite runner last season but, as the Panthers will tell you, he didn't get enough touches. All is well now; just know that this guy is a legitimate star.
I'm glad Drew Brees didn't break Dan Marino's single season passing record. I love Brees, but that record would have never been remembered with high esteem had it come in such a ho-hum season like New Orleans's.
Houston Texans 31, Chicago Bears 24
This game turned out to be moot after Minnesota's win over the Giants, but the Bears cleared things up well before that by falling behind 31-17. If you can't beat a mediocre Texans team when your season is on the line and theirs is already done, you're not a playoff team.
When the Bears get beat by good receivers, their entire defense always seems to crumble. And too often this year, Charles Tillman has been involved in this equation. Sunday, Andre Johnson torched Chicago's secondary for 148 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bears will be a trendy pick next season. People will look at Kyle Orton's solid numbers, exaggerate about the progress that Devin Hester and Greg Olsen have made as receiving options, anoint Matt Forte as a fantasy stud and, if they're really into the game, wax poetically about what a healthy Chris Williams at LT can do for the offensive line. All this, factored in with "a healthier Bears defense" will make Chicago the prognosticator's dramatic sleeper.
Atlanta Falcons 31, St. Louis Rams 27
Perhaps they were celebrating because they thought that New Orleans had beaten Carolina and given them a bye, but nevertheless, you have to love the Falcons' emotion after this win. This is a club that truly appreciates, yet doesn't take for granted, all that they've accomplished this season.
Rams players drafted a petition to keep Jim Haslett as the head coach. A serious question (serious in that I really don't know the answer to it): when you're 2-14, does the players' support help or hurt your cause?
Steven Jackson has been quiet all season (the 2-14 record has unplugged his hype) but Sunday he became the first Ram since Eric Dickerson to record three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons. And Jackson did it with just 12 games of work and no respectable passing attack to distract opposing defenses.
New England Patriots 13, Buffalo Bills 0
Usually when a team falls short of the postseason you can go back through their schedule and cite a few blown opportunities. But can we really tell these 11-5 Tom Brady-less Patriots that they must sleep in the bed they make? They won 11 games!
In all fairness, the only teams New England beat that had a winning record were the Cardinals, Dolphins (who also beat them once) and Jets (another team that beat them once).
The Pats have one of the most intriguing quarterback situations in NFL history on their plate this offseason. Some reports have said that Tom Brady is behind in his recovery from knee surgery. Matt Cassel just proved himself capable of starting in this league, but he's due to be a free agent. It's almost out of the question to franchise him because doing so would cost over $14 million (about four times too much to pay for a backup). However, New England could franchise Cassel if they are certain that they can trade him. That's what I'm guessing they'll do.
Green Bay Packers 31, Detroit Lions 21
The Lions don't deserve what's coming to them. They're a horrendous team, but not in a legendary sense.
It was a little surprising to see the vitriol in the verbal attacks made by Packer fans against Detroit. Perhaps it's unreasonable to think that a crowd wouldn't chant "0-16!" towards the end of such an historic game, but what reason do Packer fans have to hate the Lions? Detroit hasn't won a game in Green Bay since 1992.
On a similar note, Aaron Rodgers and the offense broke their pregame huddle not by saying "1-2-3…Packers!" or "1-2-3…Win!" but by saying "1-2-3…0-16!" How often do you hear teams breaking the huddle with a phrase that pertains strictly to their opponent?
Minnesota Vikings 20, New York Giants 19
The Vikings won this game because it meant something to them and nothing to New York. Watching the first three quarters, you'd never know it meant anything to Minnesota. They were flatter than Nebraskan terrain most of the afternoon, and they were clearly out-schemed.
Adrian Peterson had a big day on paper, but 67 of his 103 rushing yards came on one breakaway run. Peterson was bottled up for 36 yards on his 20 other carries because the Giants, having no respect for the Viking passing attack, overloaded the box.
Bernard Berrian is not as good as his numbers suggest. He's a deep threat, but in a No. 1 receiver, you need a guy who is a threat to catch eight balls in any given game, and 12 if left facing one-on-one coverage. Berrian's lack of physicality prevents him from being one of those guys.
David Carr was 8/11 for 110 yards and a touchdown in extended mop-up duty. As big a bust as Carr was in Houston, he's become one of the most admirable backup quarterbacks in recent memory. He's not looking for a starting job because he knows that, given his track record, he deserves to be in a spot where he must first prove himself in a No. 2 role.
Indianapolis Colts 23, Tennessee Titans 0
All this game did was put Indy at 12-4, which pours more fuel on my fire for when I rant about the NFL's unjust playoff structure later this week. The Colts will travel to San Diego for the Wild Card round. I don't care who's winning what division, a 12-win team should not have to go on the road to face an eight-win team.
Pittsburgh Steelers 31, Cleveland Browns 0
I'm not questioning Ben Roethlisberger's character or toughness, but it'd be shocking if he isn't starting under center when Pittsburgh opens postseason play in two weeks. When it comes to injuries, Roethlisberger seems to have a flair for the dramatic (think Paul Pierce in Game 1 of the NBA Finals).
It doesn't make sense for the Browns to fire Phil Savage. Like with Shack Harris in Jacksonville, the reason Cleveland's season has been so disappointing is because expectations were sky high. And why were expectations sky high? Because Savage had done a great job putting this roster together.
If anyone needs to be fired, it's Romeo Crennel. Instead, it sounds like the Browns may simply demote him. Crennel is undoubtedly a high-character individual, and he proved in New England that he's one helluva defensive coordinator. But if you fire the GM, you're basically saying you need to clean house. Simply demoting the head coach would only be a form of tidying up the house.
Cincinnati Bengals 16, Kansas City Chiefs 6
I heard both teams showed up to the stadium on time.
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