Week 12: Manning unravels, Johnson reappears, Hester burns Broncos
AP Photo/Al Behrman
Week 12 Observation Deck
By Mike Sando, ESPN.comQuarterback Eli Manning proved in Week 12 what the New York Giants must have already known. They're a run-oriented team that struggles when Manning shoulders too much of the load. The Minnesota Vikings returned three of Manning's four interceptions for touchdowns during their 41-17 upset victory in the Meadowlands -- an outcome sure to revive old questions about the Giants' ability to finish a season strong. The Giants remain heavy favorites to emerge with a wild-card berth in the NFC. But with two losses in three games since the season's midpoint, they're starting to resemble the teams that faded twice in three previous seasons under coach Tom Coughlin. The Giants are 9-18 in the second halves of seasons since Coughlin became coach in 2004. That includes a 1-7 finish three years ago and a 2-6 finish last season. They won six consecutive games this season when running backs Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Reuben Droughns were controlling games behind a veteran offensive line. The Giants rushed for 188, 188, 140 and 189 yards during the final four games of that six-game streak. They've averaged 84.3 yards rushing over the past three games. A hamstring injury has sidelined Jacobs since partway through a Week 11 victory in Detroit. Injuries have sidelined Ward for the past four games. Those injuries, coupled with the Vikings' dominant run defense, helped to create a perfect storm at Giants Stadium. Manning's first three interceptions came in third-and-long situations. Teams that run the ball effectively face fewer of those. Ten more observations from Week 12:
Fernando Medina-US PRESSWIRE
QB David Garrard's efficient play has helped the Jaguars emerge as a legitimate contender in the AFC.
1. Jags deserve respectWhile New England's dominance makes it easy to dismiss the rest of the AFC, Jacksonville deserves better. This could be the year the Jaguars finally win a playoff game under Jack Del Rio. Their dominating performance against Buffalo was their third victory in a row since QB David Garrard's injury briefly derailed them. Garrard won't set any passing records on a team determined to pound the ball, but he's the AFC's third-rated passer behind Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. Garrard has nine touchdowns and zero interceptions in the seven games he has started and finished. Error-free play from Garrard makes the Jaguars a favorite to emerge as the second seed in the AFC. They probably can't score enough points to threaten the Patriots in a head-to-head matchup, but Jacksonville can overtake Indianapolis in the AFC South by beating the Colts in Week 13. Both teams would have 9-3 records after splitting the season series, but the Jaguars would have the better conference mark (7-2 to 5-3). For more observations, click here.
Heard in the press box (in Foxborough, Mass.)
By Len Pasquarelli, ESPN.comJermaine Phillips. The Bucs signed Phillips to a four-year, $9.5 million contract extension in 2004, and were starting to wonder if the deal was a mistake. But the six-year veteran has emerged as a solid two-way defender this season, notably upgrading his "ball skills." He has combined with rookie Tanard Jackson to give the Bucs two good playmakers in the middle of their secondary. • It doesn't look as though defensive end Simeon Rice has much left, even as a situational pass-rusher. Signed by Indianapolis as a stopgap, after the Colts lost Dwight Freeney for the rest of the season, Rice, at 33 and in his 12th season, doesn't have the explosive first step that marked most of his career. He had a sack on Thursday night at Atlanta, but only because Falcons quarterback Joey Harrington was basically chased into his grasp. • Indianapolis has two key players eligible for unrestricted free agency in the spring, safety Bob Sanders and tight end Dallas Clark, and look for the Colts to get one of them signed to an extension before the end of season. That would provide the team the possibility of using the franchise designation to keep the other around. The qualifying offers for the safety and tight end positions are traditionally among the lowest in the league. For all the players the Colts have lost in free agency over the years, owner Jim Irsay usually doesn't allow "must keep" guys to escape. And Sanders and Clark fall into that category. • Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne doesn't counsel with many people, so it's hard to handicap the candidates to succeed Aggies head coach Dennis Franchione, who resigned after Friday's victory over Texas. But put the name of Houston Texans assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, the former Green Bay head coach, near the top of the list. Sherman served two stints (1989-93 and 1995-96) as an assistant at Texas A&M. And he'll be highly recommended by a pretty prominent Aggies alum, Texans head coach Gary Kubiak. • Look for deposed Nebraska coach Bill Callahan to be on an NFL staff in 2008. A former Oakland Raiders head coach, Callahan has maintained strong relationships in the league, and is well respected as an offensive line coach and coordinator. One possible landing spot for Callahan is Tampa Bay. • Most teams can't win with their quarterback throwing for only 129 yards, but the Minnesota Vikings had to be pleased with the efficiency and economy of Tarvaris Jackson in Sunday's victory over the New York Giants. The second-year veteran looked collected, hit some big passes, and managed the offense nicely. The Vikings' long-term situation at the position will probably be determined over the final five games, when management has to decide if Jackson is the guy moving forward or Minnesota has to draft someone. Jackson definitely showed some progress on Sunday. • Atlanta first-round draft choice Jamaal Anderson has been better against the run than most scouts felt he would be. But the Falcons' coaches are disappointed by Anderson's inability to pressure the pocket. Despite starting all 11 games at left end, the former Arkansas star has zero sacks and simply doesn't get much penetration at all. • Some league scouts feel the pool of offensive tackles in the 2008 draft class is among the best in recent years. Leading the way is Jake Long of Michigan, an absolute monster who might be the top prospect in the draft at any position. It's still early in the process, but some personnel people feel Long is as good as Joe Thomas, the former Wisconsin star taken by the Cleveland Browns with the third overall choice in this year's draft. The tackle who is rising the fastest in the eyes of scouts is Jeff Otah of the University of Pittsburgh. • It could be weeks before wide receiver Mike Williams gets on the field for the Tennessee Titans. The former first-rounder, a bust in stints with Detroit and Oakland, is 20 pounds too heavy and is going to have to work himself into shape. The Titans told Williams that he will play wide receiver, but he might end up as a "flexed"-type tight end if he can't get his weight down. Tennessee officials simply felt Williams was too intriguing a prospect not to sign and get a look at over the final part of the season. • With Sunday's loss, Joe Gibbs is now seven games under .500 in his second incarnation as the Washington Redskins' head coach. So even if Washington wins its final five games of the season, Gibbs still can't reach the break-even point after four seasons of his comeback. The Hall of Fame coach isn't one to walk away from a challenge with unfinished business, but some in the league are wondering if Gibbs, who turned 67 on Sunday, will be back in 2008 for the final year of his contract. • Even with Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes both sidelined, leaving rookie tailback Kolby Smith as the starter, don't look for Kansas City coach Herm Edwards to alter his offensive philosophy very much, if at all. Edwards still wants to run the football, and with Brodie Croyle now the starting quarterback, he wants to streamline the game plan. The Chiefs definitely kept a close eye last week on Oakland, and would have been interested in LaMont Jordan or Dominic Rhodes had the Raiders released one of the veteran tailbacks. Jordan played for Edwards with the Jets and certainly knows the offense.
Len Pasquarelli's game balls
• Offense: Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Johnson had not scored since Week 2, a stretch of eight games, and was stuck on three touchdown catches for the year. For much of the season, he has been overshadowed by teammate T.J. Houshmandzadeh.But in the Bengals' lopsided 35-6 victory over the Tennessee Titans, Johnson had as many touchdown grabs as he'd managed in the first 10 games of the year. Johnson registered a career-best 12 receptions for 103 yards, and, uncharacteristically, all three touchdown catches were for 10 yards or less. Johnson is better known, of course, for longer scoring plays.
• Defense: For a second consecutive week, Seattle defensive end Patrick Kerney notched three sacks, and the nine-year veteran now has 10½ quarterback takedowns for the season, his most since 2004. Kerney didn't have to make the big play in the Seahawks' last-minute effort to keep St. Louis out of the end zone, because Rams quarterback Gus Frerotte fumbled the snap on fourth down. But the former Atlanta first-round pick made a lot of other plays.Kerney had seven tackles, two quarterback pressures, an interception and a pass defensed in the 24-19 victory. His early hit on Marc Bulger eventually forced the St. Louis starter out of the game with a concussion. In the past two weeks, Kerney has 12 tackles, six sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and a pass deflection.
• Special teams: Teams have been kicking away from Chicago return star Devin Hester the past several weeks, but the Denver Broncos gambled on Sunday and lost. In the Bears' overtime victory at Denver, the winning points were provided by Robbie Gould's 39-yard field goal. But it was Hester's two returns for touchdowns in the third quarter that kept Chicago in the game.Hester had a 75-yard punt return for a score to tie the game at 13. Then, about 10 minutes later, he returned a kickoff 88 yards to knot the game at 20.
Writer's bloc• The Patriots remain perfect, but being pushed to the limit by the 22-point underdog Eagles might have given hope to the rest of the league. Len Pasquarelli • Instead of looking like some lucky squad, the Browns had the look and feel of a playoff team in beating Houston. John Clayton
Loose ends• Infirmary report: Rams QB Marc Bulger sustained a concussion against the Seahawks. The Giants lost two players (Kareem McKenzie and Antonio Pierce) to ankle injuries against Minnesota.
Week 12 rundown• Cincinnati 35, Tennessee 6
The drought's over for Chad Johnson, who scored three TDs on Sunday. It was the first time the star wideout has reached the end zone since Week 2. Photos • Cleveland 27, Houston 17
Romeo Crennel for coach of the year? With a favorable schedule down the stretch, the Browns have a great shot at an 11-win season. Photos
Minnesota 41, N.Y. Giants 17
Oh brother. Peyton Manning took advantage of a rare chance to watch his little brother play in person. And what did he see? Probably the worst game of Eli's career. Photos
New Orleans 31, Carolina 6
The decline of QB David Carr continues. Starting for Carolina only because of 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde's sore back, Carr was benched in favor of rookie Matt Moore in the fourth quarter. Photos
Jacksonville 36, Buffalo 14
Two weeks ago, the Bills were considered a dark horse playoff contender. After consecutive losses by a combined score of 86-24, it's clear Buffalo still has plenty of flaws. Photos
New England 31, Philadelphia 28
The Patriots' perfect season is still intact -- barely. The Eagles might have lost, but they showed the rest of the league that the mighty Pats aren't invincible. Photos
Looking aheadAn early look at next weekend's biggest games:
• Green Bay (10-1) at Dallas (10-1): Who's the team to beat in the NFC? We'll get a definitive answer on Thursday night.
• Jacksonville (8-3) at Indianapolis (9-2): Probably the biggest regular-season game for both teams in quite some time.
• Detroit (6-5) at Minnesota (5-6): The Lions have lost three straight. The Vikings have suddenly become one of the most dangerous teams in the NFC.