Now we know why Commissioner Roger Goodell was so frustrated last year when the Colts decided to stop trying to win games. December football, even without playoff implications, can be compelling and memorable.
Week 15 of the 2010 was one of the most memorable weekends of all time.
So here are 10 takes from a weekend that could have generated 10 times that many.
1. Coughlin will be feeling the heat, again.
After a flat 1-2 start to the season, the flames began to tickle the backside of Giants coach Tom Coughlin — especially since former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis had outed former Steelers coach Bill Cowher as a guy who secretly covets the job. Coughlin has one year left on the deal he received after winning an unlikely Super Bowl, and the Giants likely won’t be inclined to let him coach as a lame duck in 2011. The most likely outcomes, then, are either a contract extension or a contract termination.
If the Giants fail to qualify for the playoffs in the wake of the Miracle at the New Meadowlands, the Giants may feel compelled to make a change. The pain of the blown 21-point lead to the Eagles, fueled by two key special-teams blunders, could be too much for the fan base to overcome, especially with the scrutiny that is sure to come now that the Jets have essentially transferred the spot in the eye of the New York media storm to the Giants.
It will only get worse if the Giants lose to the Packers in Week 16, and if the eventual NFC playoff field includes teams other than the Giants.
In the end, the situation could benefit Coughlin. The players remain for the most part behind him, and if they sense that his job is in jeopardy perhaps they will respond.
If not, there could be a new sheriff in town for 2011. And his name could be Bill Cowher.
2. Vikings, Bears players should stop worrying about the field at TCF Bank Stadium.
Last week, several Bears expressed concern regarding the hibernation-inducing quality of the surface at TCF Bank Stadium, the home of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. The field, which was designed for games played in September through November not December or January, lacks the heating systems employed by NFL stadiums in the coldest months of the year.
(It had been widely presumed throughout the week that all NFL stadiums have a built-in heating system. NFL spokesman Michael Signora tells PFT that three stadiums do not have underground heating coils — Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, and the New Meadowlands Stadium. That said, these stadiums have procedures for preventing the accumulation of ice and snow during the season. At TCF Bank Stadium, the season was believed to be over.)
The Viking aren’t concerned that the field will be a problem. Players from both teams aren’t as optimistic. At this point, however, nothing can really be done about it. As NBC’s Rodney Harrison pointed out during our weekly online video segment, a coach like Bill Belichick of the Patriots would explain to his players that obsessing over a potential distraction will serve only to make the potential distraction a distraction.
If one or more players suffer injury due to the potentially frozen field, then there will be questions even harder than the most frozen tundra Lambeau Field ever has generated. But with the NFL moving forward and the NFLPA standing silent, there’s really nothing that the players can do other than, you know, play.
3. Giants more concerned about play-calling than special-teams play.
In the wake of Sunday’s deflating loss to the Eagles, fueled by the failure to use the “hands” team on a kickoff return and the inability to boot a punt out of bounds, it was assumed that fingers would be pointing in the locker room at the folks responsible for these two aspects of the Giants’ not-so-special teams.
But that’s not the case.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation tell us that the players are far more troubled by the play selection in the second half, which opened with the Giants leading the Eagles 24-3. With an offense built to run the ball, multiple opportunities to keep the ball in bounds and the clock moving were eschewed in favor of pass plays.
It appears that, after the Giants’ first drive of the second half consisted of three runs and a punt, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride opted to reopen the playbook, with two plays on the next drive resulting in clock-killing incompletions. The next drive included two more incomplete passes out of four total plays.
After the onside kick that allowed the Eagles to cut the lead to seven, the Giants faced a key third and eight from the Philly 40. Instead of running the ball at a time when the Eagles had no remaining timeouts, which would have allowed the Giants to work the clock under 2:30 before giving it back, Gilbride called a pass, it was incomplete, and 3:08 remained when the Giants punted.
If nothing else, the game-tying score may have happened late enough to persuade the Giants not to try to go for the win in regulation, which set the stage for the memorable final-play punt return from DeSean Jackson.
The fact that the Giants built a 21-point lead, twice, gives them confidence. But if they don’t do a better job of milking the clock the next time they have a big lead, the team may have no further confidence in Gilbride.
4. Polamalu’s absence could sink Pittsburgh’s hopes.
Last year, the Steelers were 4-1 in games started by safety Troy Polamalu. (The loss came in a contest he left in the first quarter, after aggravating a knee injury.) In the 11 games from 2009 that Polamalu didn’t start, the Steelers were 5-6.
This year, the Steelers are 0-1 without Polamalu. If he misses the last two games of the regular season, the Steelers could blow their chance at winning the AFC North title and the bye week that likely will go along with it. Though the Steelers play the lowly Panthers and the sinking Browns, one more loss could be enough to force the Steelers to hit the road in the wild-card week.
With Polamalu hurting, it’s even more important for the rest of the team to step up and secure that week off in early January.
5. Jaguars fell victim to the fear of Manning.
Jacksonville didn’t lose on Sunday to the Colts. Instead, the Jaguars surrendered.
By opting to try to convert a fourth down and one from their own 39 on the first drive of the third quarter, the Jags made it clear that they didn’t believe they could go toe-to-toe with the Indy offense. By failing to gain the yard, the Jags gave the Colts and quarterback Peyton Manning a chance to prove the road team right, pushing the score to 21-10 only three plays later.
Though the Jaguars thereafter kept it interesting, the game was essentially over at that point.
Most likely, Jacksonville’s season is, too.
6. Batman, Robin played second fiddle on Sunday.
Despite being injured all week, the Bengals activated receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. But neither player started, with the Bengals instead giving the first-team duties to Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell.
T.O. left the game with a knee injury that will surely end his one-year stint with the Bengals. Ochocinco made it through the game, generating only 36 receiving yards.
Ochocinco has yet to erupt about his demotion or his numbers on his Twitter page, but he has to be getting more and more frustrated. With Owens destined to play elsewhere next year, we’re prepared to predict that Batman and Robin’s offseason goal will be to find a new Gotham City in which they can fight crime and/or poison locker rooms.
7. Vick propels himself back into the MVP race.
Just as we were prepared to conclude that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is destined to win his second NFL MVP award, Eagles quarterback Mike Vick authored a comeback for the ages, thrusting himself back into the debate as to the most valuable player in the NFL.
In the end, the outcome will surely hinge on the one-person, one-vote approach utilized by the Associated Press. With no Heisman-style first-place, second-place, and third-place voting, the 50 folks who pick the NFL’s unofficial postseason prizes will be required to make an all-or-nothing decision.
That said, it wouldn’t be a shock if some split their votes between Brady and Vick. The bigger questions are these: (1) will any voters shun Vick due to his federal guilty plea to dogfighting and gambling; and (2) will votes cast for traditional pocket passers like Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers come from persons who, between Brady and Vick, would have picked Brady?
Either way, Vick has made a compelling case, and he’ll get one more chance to persuade a prime-time audience that he deserves the award.
Right now, it’s hard to say that he doesn’t.
8. Epic NFC title game could be coming.
We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves on this one. But we will anyway.
The Falcons currently are closing in on the top seed in the NFC. The Eagles, with that epic win at the New Meadowlands, look to be locking in at No. 2.
Assuming that both teams can get past the division round at home, the Eagles would head to Atlanta for the NFC championship.
More specifically, Mike Vick would return to Atlanta. For a berth in the Super Bowl. Six years after the Falcons and Vick went to Philly with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
With all due respect to the four other NFC teams that will qualify for the playoffs, it’s hard not to root to see Vick return to the Georgia Dome in a conference title game.
9. Bucs will be dangerous in 2011, and beyond.
Setting aside the playoff-killing loss at home to the Lions, the Buccaneers have plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Ravaged by injuries, the Bucs have made no excuses; instead, they’ve just kept playing.
And with a new Triplets combination of Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount, and Mike Williams, the Buccaneers will be competing with the Falcons and Saints for years to come.
Indeed, it appears that Freeman is, so far, the best quarterback of a 2009 first-round class that includes Matt Stafford of the Lions and Mark Sanchez of the Jets. Stafford has had durability issues, and Sanchez has been too inconsistent.
Though the Bucs are still technically alive, given losses by the Giants, Saints, and Packers, it’ll take a lot for Tampa to cap their turnaround season with a spot in the postseason. Even if it doesn’t happen this year, it’ll likely be happening soon.
10. Ravens’ impressive win was easily overlooked.
Lost in the shuffle of the Eagles-Giants clash and the hard-fought Jets-Steelers game was an interconference contest that arguably had just as much significance.
Since losing to the team that currently plays in Cleveland, the Saints had won six in a row before visiting the team that used to play in Cleveland. And the team that used to play in Cleveland — the Ravens — finally found a way not to blow a slim lead in the fourth quarter.
The win came against a team that seems to be able to mount a quick-strike touchdown drive whenever it needs one. This time around, the Ravens picked off Saints quarterback Drew Brees deep in his own end of the field, eventually adding a field goal to a 27-24 lead, good for a 30-24 win.
Meanwhile, the Saints continue to get very little production out of tailback Reggie Bush, 13 weeks after he suffered a fractured fibula. Bush rushed for minus-four yards, and he added 36 yards receiving.
On the other sideline was a guy who did what we all had believed Bush would always do. Ray Rice racked up 233 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns, and he could be heating up at just the right time to make the Ravens a factor in the AFC playoff field.
Remember this — the Ravens played five road playoff games in 2008 and 2009 combined, winning three. If they can just play one game at home, they could steal a spot in the Super Bowl.