Fourteen down, three to go. We again had extensive coverage from Sunday, but that’s not everything we have to say. Here are 22 extra thoughts from Sunday…
1. Green Bay is emerging as an overwhelming favorite. As the Pack pounded the Raiders to move to 13-0, everyone within their range was struggling. San Francisco, the league’s only two-loss team coming into Week 14, fell to Arizona. New England and Houston (three losses each) barely survived in Washington and Cincinnati. We saw the trouble Pittsburgh had Thursday night. The Saints had to fight tooth and nail in Tennessee. Now that they’ve virtually wrapped up the top seed, Green Bay can play smart and conservative football and avoid injuries while everyone else risks life and limb in the playoff shuffle.
2. That’s assuming Greg Jennings is okay. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a heavy fave with or without Jennings, but not having him in January would be a huge loss for the Packers. The good news is that they don’t play another meaningful game for five weeks (and they can probably win in the divisional playoffs without Jennings).
3. Giants-Cowboys always feels the same. Sixty-plus points. Neither team has much of an edge. Both make a slew of seemingly fatal mistakes. Myriad lead changes. The last possessor almost always comes out victorious. And you often walk away feeling worse about both teams. Just another day in the NFC East.
4. The Giants could play their next four games at MetLife. They finish the season at home (technically they’re the away team against the Jets in Week 16, but they share a stadium), and now control their playoff destiny, which means there’s a good chance they’ll be at home to start the playoffs on the second weekend of January. They aren’t consistent or reliable on either side of the ball, but with playmakers like Eli Manning and Jason Pierre-Paul, they might make something out of a season that seemed destined to fail based on the injuries they suffered in August and September. If so, the turning point was Sunday night, with that dramatic fourth-quarter comeback in Dallas.
5. That could be it for Dallas. No DeMarco Murray hurts, but isn’t a killer because Felix Jones is more than capable. That said, they just don’t look like an elite team and Tony Romo continues to lack consistency in terms of his carelessness. With Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson all getting healthier, anything can happen, but the last two weeks have revealed that the Cowboys aren’t in the same league as Green Bay and New Orleans. I think they might have to win out to make the playoffs, and I can’t see that happening.
6. I have nothing to add in regard to the Tom Brady-Bill O’Brien tiff. It happened and they moved on. It’s over. I don’t think we’re comprehending how often these things happen. Was it mildly interesting? Sure. But there’s nothing more to it and it shouldn’t become a hot topic. But because it involves Brady and the Patriots, we’ll hear about it far too often this week. So will Bill Belichick.
7. How many will Rob Gronkowski finish with? He now has a single-season tight end record with 15 touchdowns, and he’s just three scores short of the third-highest total in NFL history (Sterling Sharpe and Mark Clayton each had 18). He won’t reach Randy Moss (23) or Jerry Rice (22), but he’s scored at least twice in four of his last five games so there’s a good chance Gronk ends up with 20. Plus, he has a rushing touchdown that came on a lateral last week. Pretty amazing for a 22-year-old sophomore.
8. The Patriots aren’t turning it around defensively like they did at this point last season. What’s wrong with Devin McCourty? You can’t give up that many yards to a terribly depleted Redskins offense.
9. Tough loss for the Jets: Jim Leonhard out for the year with a knee injury. Leonhard’s an integral part of that defense, but the Jets survived without him to make the AFC championship game last year.
10. Did the 49ers peak too early? Two losses in three games. I understand the dud in Baltimore, and Arizona has been playing well, but that’s rough. Alex Smith doesn’t look like a playoff quarterback and the defense is suddenly giving up big plays. Now they have tough games with Pittsburgh (at home) and Seattle (on the road). They’re losing momentum, and there’s a good chance they lose that first-round bye to New Orleans.
11. Jake Locker or Matt Hasselbeck? So long as Tennessee’s in the playoff race and Hasselbeck’s healthy, it’ll be him. But it wouldn’t surprise me if some Titans were quietly hoping that Hasselbeck sat out the final three regular-season games, because Locker has shown some nice flashes in limited playing time this season. He was especially good in crunch time against the Saints.
12. Joe Webb or Christian Ponder? I realize that the Vikings won’t be prepared to admit that Ponder was a mistake first-round pick this early, especially considering that he hasn’t been too bad as a rookie. That said, you could argue that they never gave Webb a fair chance, and he looked solid Sunday in relief of Ponder. This could develop into a quarterback competition before long, because quarterback leashes are that short nowadays. Besides, the financial investment Minnesota made in Ponder wasn’t monumental enough that making a change and trading him down the line would be an overly difficult thing to do.
13. I’m worried about the Saints on grass outdoors. They weren’t themselves in Nashville, on either side of the ball. Last time they played under those circumstances, they lost 26-20 in Tampa. They won’t have to deal with that again during the regular season, but if they keep winning there’s a good chance they’ll find themselves on the road, in the elements and on grass again in late January…in Green Bay.
14. Can the Texans really pull this off with T.J. Yates? Flying under the radar, the rookie is 2-0 with two comeback victories since taking over for Matt Schaub/Leinart. He’s limiting mistakes (two turnovers in two games) and has a higher passer rating than Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. Sunday’s performance came without Andre Johnson, on the road, against a top-10 defense. And he showed remarkable poise with the game on the line, throwing the winning score with two seconds remaining. With remaining games against Carolina, Indy and Tennessee, he might be able to help Houston land the AFC’s top seed. But can he beat teams like New England, Baltimore or Pittsburgh in January? With that defense and that running game, maybe.
15. Both completely healthy, the Texans are still better than the Colts. In other words: Regardless of who’s quarterbacking the Colts next September, Houston should enter the 2012 season as the favorite to win the AFC South. It’s a shame that some might try to chalk up the Texans’ first-ever division crown as a result of the absence of Peyton Manning in Indianapolis.
16. The Vikings are one of the best 2-11 teams ever. Maybe the best. Terrible compliment, I know, but Minnesota is so much better than 2-11. They almost always put up a fight. Crazy: the Vikes had 29 first downs in Detroit. The Lions had just 13.
17. The single-season sack record is under attack again. Jared Allen and DeMarcus Ware were both on pace to break it during the first half of the year, but they faded in November. Allen broke free, though, with three sacks against the Lions Sunday. Now, he’s just five sacks back of Michael Strahan’s single-season mark of 22.5. He’s on pace to finish with 21.5, but the remaining schedule might give him a shot at the record. He faces the Saints, the Redskins (who will be without regular starting left tackle Trent Williams) and the Bears (who have given up five sacks per game since Caleb Hanie took over). My guess? Allen ends up with 22, falling just a half-sack short.
18. How crucial is Jake Long to the Dolphins’ offense? With Long hurt for much of Sunday’s game, Miami gave up nine sacks to the Eagles. Oh, and Matt Moore got hurt.
19. A sign that you’re not a playoff-worthy team. Third-down conversions Sunday for Tennessee and Chicago, combined: 3-for-25.
20. A sign that Tim Tebow is progressing as a passer. His completions per game dating back to Week 10: 2, 9, 9, 10, 21. Also nice to see him win despite getting little support from the running game.
21. Amazing: In their seven wins with Tebow at quarterback, the Broncos have been outscored 89-75 in the first three quarters. Problem is, they still haven’t played any really good teams. Combined record of the seven teams they’ve beaten since Tebow took over: 39-52. This week: 10-3 New England at home. Biggest test yet.
22. Naturally, John Skelton, T.J. Yates and Tim Tebow are now a combined 13-2 this season. That’s a bit of a lie because Kevin Kolb technically gets the win for starting and throwing one pass in Arizona today, but Skelton deserves the credit, obviously. All they do is win.
23. Santa photographer!