Observation deck: Playoff picture far from complete
Wild winter weather and a few upsets had a significant impact on the playoff picture, writes Mike Sando.
Wild winter weather and a few upsets made for turbulent times as the NFL playoff picture continued to shake out in Week 15.
Seattle's disappearing act in Carolina delivered first-round playoff byes to NFC leaders Dallas and Green Bay, while giving Tampa Bay an outside shot at the third seed in the conference playoffs. The Cowboys held on to the top spot in the NFC despite stumbling at home against the Eagles.
Jacksonville outmuscled Pittsburgh in a potentially defining 29-22 victory at Heinz Field, but the Jaguars haven't won much of anything yet. Their inability to overtake Indianapolis in the AFC South means the Jaguars can't secure anything higher than the fifth seed in the AFC. They appear likely to visit Cleveland or Pittsburgh in a wild-card game.
The Browns' snow-covered home victory over Buffalo gives Cleveland a shot at the fourth seed in the AFC, behind New England (14-0), Indianapolis (12-2) and resurgent San Diego (9-5). The Chargers, suddenly hotter than the seat Norv Turner inhabited much of the season, need only to defeat Denver at home and Oakland on the road to claim the third seed in the conference.
If the Chargers hold up their end, the second-place team in the AFC North -- Cleveland or Pittsburgh -- likely would visit San Diego as the sixth seed in the wild-card round.
The Browns can clinch a playoff berth by winning in Cincinnati in Week 16. Cleveland probably needs to win out against the Bengals and the 49ers to overtake the Steelers in the AFC North. Pittsburgh plays at St. Louis on Thursday night before finishing the regular season in Baltimore.
The Steelers' regular-season sweep of the Browns gives Pittsburgh a good shot at claiming the fourth seed as the AFC North champion.
Tennessee kept a prominent spot in the AFC conversation by beating Kansas City. The Titans can finish 10-6 with victories over the New York Jets and Indianapolis, but that won't be enough for a playoff spot if Jacksonville wins one more game and the AFC North runner-up adds a conference victory to its résumé.
In the NFC, Tampa Bay's 37-3 pounding of Atlanta delivered the NFC South title to the Bucs. Seattle's opening-week victory over Tampa Bay gives the Seahawks inside positioning for the third seed in the NFC. The New York Giants headed into their Week 15 game against Washington as the likely fifth seed. Minnesota can tighten its grip on the sixth and final spot with a victory over Chicago on Monday night.
Ten observations from Week 15:
1. Potential concerns in DallasTony Romo tossed eight interceptions in Dallas' final five games last season, precipitating a first-round playoff exit for the Cowboys. He's been far better this season, but the thumb injury Romo suffered against Philadelphia makes it harder to dismiss his three interceptions. Romo finished the game -- How could he opt out with girlfriend Jessica Simpson in attendance and wearing his jersey? -- but he clearly wasn't Mr. Right in the 10-6 defeat at Texas Stadium. Romo completed 13 of 36 passes with no touchdowns and a 22.2 rating. Romo wasn't the only Dallas player hurting, either. Center Andre Gurode and defensive end Chris Canty left with knee injuries. Tight end Anthony Fasano left with a concussion. Terrell Owens had trouble holding on to the football, finishing with two receptions. Give the Eagles credit. Lito Sheppard continued to distinguish himself against the game's best receivers. Donovan McNabb fought through constant pressure to avoid interceptions. It's certainly no shock when good teams lose to well-coached division opponents. The Cowboys still might have the best team in the NFC, but for the first time this season, their offense has questions to answer.
2. It's not how you start but how you finishChargers general manager A.J. Smith seemed a bit smug when shrugging off second-guessers during the team's early struggles under new coach Norv Turner. Smith's patience seemed inconsistent with the quick trigger he showed former coach Marty Schottenheimer, but that doesn't matter now. San Diego, a 51-14 winner over Detroit, has averaged better than 30 points per game in its four-game winning streak. The Chargers have a very good shot at finishing with 11 victories and hosting a wild-card game. LaDainian Tomlinson, who averaged 7.7 yards per carry against the Lions, is gaining momentum by the week.
3. Garrard separating these JagsTeammates chanted Fred Taylor's name after Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio presented the running back with a game ball after his dominating performance in Pittsburgh. To which a smiling Taylor responded: "I got one thing to say, men. Let's keep eating." The Jaguars are playing with an appropriate hunger. Del Rio and Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis entered this season as the longest-tenured coaches without playoff victories in their current positions. Lewis might be running out of chances. Del Rio and the Jaguars finally have the team to get the job done. Taylor deserves much of the credit after carrying 25 times for 147 yards against the Steelers' traditionally stout run defense. Maurice Jones-Drew's success in short-yardage situations was another key Sunday. But quarterback David Garrard separates this Jacksonville team from its predecessors. He matched Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger with three touchdown passes. Unlike Roethlisberger, who took five sacks, Garrard never lost yardage with the ball in his hands until taking a knee to secure the biggest victory of the season.
4. For the recordsGreen Bay's Brett Favre overtook Hall of Famer Dan Marino as the all-time passing leader with 61,405 yards during the Packers' 33-14 victory in St. Louis. Officials stopped the game to mark the moment, making Favre wonder whether there had been a penalty. That mentality differentiates football records from baseball records. There are no home runs in football. Team accomplishments trump almost any individual achievement in the NFL. Emmitt Smith might be the all-time rushing leader, to cite one example, but the record hardly defines his career. Same goes for Favre.
5. So much for votes of confidenceThe Ravens followed news that Brian Billick will return as coach in 2008 by becoming the Dolphins' only victim through 15 weeks. Life could get even worse for Baltimore. The Ravens could very well take a 10-game losing streak into a pivotal offseason. They finish with Seattle on the road and Pittsburgh at home.
Billick coached the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory after the 2000 season, but he hasn't won a playoff game in five years. That's the longest drought for any of the nine coaches who have led their current teams to the Super Bowl. Despite his apparent job security, Billick played it safe when the Ravens had a fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 12 seconds remaining in regulation. Matt Stover's 18-yard field goal sent the game into overtime. Heading into the game, the Ravens had converted their only fourth-down rushing attempt when they needed 1 or 2 yards for a first down.
6. Emmitt Thomas deserved betterLongtime NFL assistant Emmitt Thomas waited most of his career to become an NFL head coach, and this is what he gets? With water pouring over the Atlanta Falcons' bow and former skipper Bobby Petrino having reserved the first lifeboat for himself, Thomas stepped into the worst top job in recent NFL memory. The Falcons' recently appointed interim coach stood no chance in Tampa Bay, where the Bucs humiliated the Falcons, 37-3, on their way to the NFC South title. Thomas previously interviewed for head coaching jobs with the Eagles and Giants, but not even the Rooney Rule could persuade NFL owners to give him a chance. Thomas is 64 and likely on his way out of the league. What was it, again, that made Petrino the Falcons' top choice last offseason?
7. Empty bag of tricksNew England's ability to conceive and successfully execute trick plays should come with fine print dissuading lesser teams from attempting similar shenanigans. The Dolphins drove 70 yards to the Baltimore 5, only to have Cleo Lemon throw to pass-rusher Jason Taylor in the end zone. The second-and-3 play failed, of course, and Miami settled for a field goal and a 6-3 deficit. In the Patriots' house, Jets quarterback Chad Pennington completed a 16-yard pass to Jerricho Cotchery on third-and-18 from the New England 33. Instead of riding Pennington's sudden momentum, the Jets had Brad Smith throw for tight end Chris Baker on a poorly executed rollout. Turnover on downs. The Steelers are one of the few other teams that have earned the right to get fancy. Pittsburgh's Cedrick Wilson found fellow receiver Santonio Holmes in the end zone for a critical two-point conversion against Jacksonville.
8. Seahawks go quietlyAs ESPN's Merril Hoge noted Saturday, Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck has become one of the NFL's best at getting his team into the right play with shrewd pre-snap adjustments. Hasselbeck needed a little help in Carolina. His running backs carried 11 times for 32 yards, and the Seattle defense -- a strength of the team much of the season -- failed to collect a sack. The Seahawks' pass rush can be formidable, but it's also hot and cold. Seattle has ranked among the league leaders in sacks by ganging up on San Francisco, St. Louis, Chicago and Arizona's Kurt Warner. The Seahawks have 20 sacks against the 49ers and Rams, plus 10 more in recent games against the Bears and the Warner-led Cardinals. Seattle has gone without a sack in four of its five defeats this season. The Panthers converted nine times in 18 third-down chances.
9. Bucs make historyHistory visited Tampa Bay on more than one front in Week 15. Miami's victory preserved the 1976 Bucs' status as the only winless team in NFL history, and Micheal Spurlock's 90-yard return gave Tampa Bay its first kickoff return for a touchdown in its 32-season history. The Bucs had returned 1,864 kickoffs from their inaugural season through Week 14. Their 1,865th produced a 14-3 lead while ending one of the NFL's more confounding streaks.
10. Upset of the weekMike Ditka, Keyshawn Johnson, Emmitt Smith and Tom Jackson predicted the Jaguars' victory in Pittsburgh, more evidence that the Steelers' first home loss of the season wasn't much of an upset. The biggest upset might have been the relatively cordial postgame handshake in Foxborough, Mass. Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Jets coach Eric Mangini probably won't exchange Christmas cards this holiday season, but their postgame behavior injected civility into an increasingly frigid relationship. This wasn't one of those no-look handshakes, either. Each grasped the other's hand fully, although Mangini later said he couldn't recall what his former boss said to him.
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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