Twenty thoughts from the best NFL Saturday of the year…
1. It’s going to be fun to see the Lions in the playoffs. Unless you’re a fan of a rival, it’s hard not to be excited to see them in there. And the best part for me, as someone who lives in Bills country, is that Detroit and Houston getting to the postseason means Buffalo is officially riding the longest playoff drought in football.
2. Matthew Stafford is the hottest quarterback in the league. He turned it on in the fourth quarter in Oakland and hasn’t stepped out of the zone since. Impeccable performance against San Diego, putting away the hottest team in the league with ease. Now, the Lions have returned to their September form just in time. They’ll have a real chance to pull off an upset on wild-card weekend (unless they draw the Saints in New Orleans).
3. Patrick Willis’ injury wasn’t exactly a blessing in disguise, BUT it has helped the Niners realize that they have one hell of a spare linebacker in Larry Grant, who stripped Tarvaris Jackson to lock up a too-close-for-comfort victory in Seattle. Many figured San Francisco might blow their first-round playoff bye when Willis went down, but Grant has come up huge in Willis’ stead the last two weeks. Two huge San Fran wins in six days, and now they’re just one victory in Arizona away from locking up that No. 2 seed in the NFC. That Grant strip was Seattle’s only turnover of the game — expect him to contribute in January regardless of Willis’ status.
4. Seattle’s gonna be a good team next year. They’re a good team now, but watch out in 2012. Jackson and Marshawn Lynch outperformed Alex Smith and Frank Gore on Saturday, and that defense is only going to get better. They really wanted this game against San Fran, but they’ve been collecting moral victories throughout the second half of the season.
5. Late runs from Philly and San Diego go for naught. And that’s probably a good thing, because there was a chance that playoff appearances would have disguised serious flaws in both teams. I’m not sure what’s going to happen to Andy Reid and Norv Turner, but both teams have some serious changes to make, especially on defense.
6. Might the Steelers be the AFC’s best team? I know they lost handily in San Francisco less than a week ago, and I know they were expected to easily dismantle the Rams on Saturday, but that’s how quickly things change in this league. With or without Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers will beat Cleveland next week. If Baltimore stumbles against the Bengals (very possible), they’ll end up with a first-round bye.
7. Because I still don’t trust the Patriots. It depends which New England team shows up in January, but that defense still scares me. The Patriots I’m used to wouldn’t trail the so-so Dolphins 17-0 at halftime at home in December. Kudos to the New England defense for stepping up and having their best two-quarter run of the year during the second half against Miami, but this is not a well-rounded team, and Tom Brady continues to look iffy and inconsistent. It probably doesn’t help that the offensive line is a mess — that’s something to keep an eye on.
8. Hue Jackson is very lucky. Penalties nearly killed his Raiders again on Saturday. The league’s most-penalized team was called for delay of game on a beautiful fake field goal touchdown, which almost cost them the game. They survived to win in overtime and break a three-game losing streak, and now there’s a decent chance they squeak into the playoffs. If they don’t do so, Jackson should have to answer to whoever’s in charge.
9. Merry Christmas, Adrian Peterson. If it’s as bad as it sounds, your career might never be the same. Really rough for a Vikings team that thought it had several years left with Peterson. The life of an NFL running back…
10. And yet the Vikings win. And the Joe Webb debate gets more heated, as Webb threw two touchdown passes in Minnesota’s third victory of the season with Christian Ponder hurt. The Vikes should seriously consider trading Ponder in the offseason. He’s affordable and expendable.
11. The Bucs need a change. Let’s face it, Raheem Morris is done. They won’t fire him on Christmas, and the Glazers aren’t known for making changes during the season. Might as well wait a week. It’s a shame — I believe in Morris, just as I believed in Josh McDaniels, who was also hired as an infant in Denver. Neither succeeded in their first jobs, but that’s to be expected at that age. Becoming a head coach should be like becoming POTUS — you should be required to be at least 35 years old. Morris will be successful at some point, but it’s time for the Buccaneers to go elsewhere.
12. How do you not love the Giants-Jets fat boy drama? Too bad they don’t play again until 2015, unless they meet in a Super Bowl. Oh man, imagine an all-New York Super Bowl in 2013, at MetLife Stadium? I think I just peed a little…
13. Cam Newton is making a lot of pre-draft pundits look bad. No rookie wall for this game — that 49-yard rushing touchdown up the gut of the Tampa defense was out of this world. I haven’t gotten this much enjoyment out of watching a football player since Michael Vick in Atlanta. He’s one of a kind. So excited to see him in 2012.
14. Panthers and Dolphins: playoff teams, 2012. Wait for it.
15. Silver lining for those who still want to rip the Bills: Denver still doesn’t have a real quarterback. It was too little, too late, as always. They’ve still converted just two of their last 23 third downs. Pick one, or use a combination of the three.
16. It truly doesn’t matter who Mike Shanahan starts at running back. Evan Royster with 132 yards. I’m beginning to believe that Sean Tomlinson could hit triple digits in the Washington offense.
17. Jason Pierre-Paul might deserve an All-Pro spot. Two more sacks for one of the best playmakers in the league. The 22-year-old now has 15.5 in his sophomore season, and his impact goes far beyond that number. I wonder how the Bucs, Jaguars, Chargers and Eagles feel about passing on him in the 2010 draft.
18. NFC West teams at Heinz Field this season: zero points in eight quarters. About right.
19. So maybe the Jets won’t get over the loss of Jim Leonhard this season. Brodney Pool and Eric Smith look bad. The D has given up 74 points in back-to-back losses sans Leonhard.
20. The obvious Sunday nighter next week: Cowboys at Giants with the NFC East on the line. But the stakes are quite high for Ravens-Bengals, and NBC already had New York-Dallas earlier in the year, so it’s not a lock.