Fix Steelers' D; Woodson for DPOY
Other Week 12 insights: Bengals should cherish 'hidden gem,' Bears need WRs
As we head into the final full month of the NFL regular season, it's time to look at what we should have learned from the latest round of games. Here are 10 observations regarding Week 12 (prior to the New England-New Orleans showdown on ESPN's "Monday Night Football"):
Pittsburgh's painThe Pittsburgh Steelers are facing their first three-game losing streak since 2006, but let's not blame backup quarterback Dennis Dixon for the 20-17 overtime loss Sunday to Baltimore. Though he threw a critical interception in overtime, he also played well enough for Pittsburgh to win this game in regulation. The real issue for the Steelers is the defense. Pittsburgh has lost four of its five games this season after holding a fourth-quarter lead. That isn't typical of the Steelers and it's something that might not change once safety Troy Polamalu is healthy again. And until they find a way to fix the problem, the defending Super Bowl champs need to be extremely concerned about their playoff hopes.
Loaded backfieldRunning back Larry Johnson might have been the headliner in Cincinnati's 16-7 win over Cleveland, but don't ignore the recent play of fellow Bengals back Bernard Scott. The Cincinnati coaches have been excited about Scott's speed and big-play potential ever since the rookie arrived in camp and it's easy to see why, especially now that Cedric Benson has been sidelined by a hip injury. Along with gaining 87 yards on 18 carries against Cleveland, Scott has turned in impressive efforts against Oakland (119 yards on 21 carries in a loss) and Pittsburgh (a 96-yard kick return that proved to be the deciding points in that 18-12 win) in recent weeks. So as much as Johnson was a nice story on Sunday, Bengals fans likely know something else about the Cincinnati backfield: Scott might be a hidden gem who pays huge dividends when the playoffs begin.
A little help, pleaseIt's time for Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo to change his philosophy about investing high draft picks on wide receivers. The man believes that quarterbacks ultimately make receivers play well -- not the other way around -- but his current quarterback, Jay Cutler, needs some help. Cutler threw two interceptions in his team's 36-10 loss to Minnesota, a number that raised his career single-season high total to 20 picks. That's also the worst in the league this season. Meanwhile, Brett Favre was slinging the ball all over the field to two receivers Minnesota drafted high (Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin) and another they added in free agency in 2008 (Bernard Berrian, who spent his four previous seasons with the Bears). Now does Favre make those players better? Sure. But would Cutler's play improve with weapons like those instead of the unimposing targets he's saddled with this year? There's no doubt about that, either.
Give it up, TexansIt's not worth debating this next topic: The Houston Texans will never become the team they hope to be as long as Peyton Manning is playing quarterback in Indianapolis. Manning led the Colts to a 35-27 win over Houston on Sunday and his team is now 15-1 overall against the Texans. Those aren't simply stunning numbers. Those are the kinds of facts that make it hard for the Texans to overcome the obvious mental edge that Manning and his teammates have built against Houston. It doesn't matter how good the Texans look in these games -- and they held a 20-7 halftime lead in this latest contest. The Colts just have their number and that will always be a major stumbling block for a Houston team hoping to ascend to playoff contender.
Surprise, surpriseAs hard as it is to find positives in a 1-10 team, I can't ignore the recent play of Tampa Bay rookie quarterback Josh Freeman. He led the Bucs to their only win in his first start (over Green Bay) and he played well enough a week later to help Tampa Bay nearly beat Miami. Now Freeman is coming off the best game of his short tenure as a starter: a 20-for-29, 250-yard effort that included two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 20-17 loss to Atlanta. Yes, the Bucs still lost. But numbers like those should have people in those parts encouraged about their future. Freeman was supposed to be a raw first-round pick who needed a year or two on the sidelines to develop into a quality starter. He's already proven that he might mature much faster than anybody ever imagined.
Back in the shadows againArizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart has incredibly bad timing when it comes to facing Vince Young. Leinart lost the national championship to Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl (when Leinart was at USC and Young was at Texas) and now Leinart was upstaged by Young on Sunday. Look, Young proved that he's grown up plenty with his 387-yard passing day in Tennessee's comeback win over Arizona. But Leinart handled himself impressively as well. He completed 21 of 31 passes for 220 yards while starting in place of Kurt Warner. In fact, Leinart has completed 68.9 percent of his passes since Warner sustained a concussion in last week's win over St. Louis. The word around Arizona was that Leinart, a first-round pick in 2006, had been making strides ever since losing his job to Warner in 2008. Now we know people weren't lying about his progress.
West Coast bluesThe Jacksonville Jaguars have to be grateful that they're done with their West Coast trips for this season. They've played two games on that side of the country and each one has been a disaster. First came a 41-0 blowout by Seattle on Oct. 11. Now the Jaguars are trying to recover from a 20-3 beating at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers. That loss to the 49ers had to sting, too. Instead of going into December riding a four-game winning streak, the Jags now have to regroup for a difficult stretch over the next four weeks. During that time, they will face three teams fighting for playoff spots (Houston, Miami and New England) and a fourth that already has clinched a postseason bid (Indianapolis).
More action for JacksonSince the Buffalo Bills are heading into the tank, can they at least create more opportunities for running back Fred Jackson? He totaled 116 yards (73 rushing, 43 receiving) in Sunday's 31-14 win over Miami and added his first two rushing touchdowns of the season. This isn't an aberration, either. The man generally produces when he plays, as proven by his average of 110 total yards in his six starts this season. The problem is that feature back Marshawn Lynch needs his touches as well, which too often leads to Jackson's vanishing from the offensive game plan. But now that the Bills have nothing to play for, they should find a way to better use Jackson and Lynch (who has been hampered by a shoulder injury) in tandem. After all, that was the team's plan when this season began.
Welcome back to realityIf Kansas City's upset win over Pittsburgh last week was a breakthrough moment in the Scott Pioli/Todd Haley era, then Sunday's 43-14 thumping in San Diego was a reminder of how far the Chiefs still are from turning their franchise turnaround. The Chargers jumped out to a 28-7 lead and harassed Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel (one interception, two fumbles) all game. What this game ultimately proved is that San Diego is ready to run away with the AFC West. In contrast, the Chiefs now realize that one big win doesn't mean your organization is suddenly moving in the right direction.
One final Thanksgiving blessingThe Green Bay Packers have to still be thankful that cornerback Charles Woodson wasn't a highly coveted free agent when he signed with them in 2006. He's been a stud defender ever since joining the team and he dominated the Detroit Lions on Thursday. Along with two interceptions -- one that he returned for a touchdown -- Woodson added a forced fumble, a sack and four pass deflections. He has a monster season in the works (seven interceptions, four forced fumbles and two sacks) and he's even played safety on occasion. In other words, somebody please let me know if there's a better candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.