John Clayton's Last Call: Defensive unrest for Patriots, Steelers

Updated: December 6, 2009

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The Raiders are paying JaMarcus Russell big money, but Bruce Gradkowski has become their best option at quarterback. Gradkowski threw three fourth-quarter touchdown passes, including the game winner with nine seconds left, leading Oakland to a 27-24 upset over Pittsburgh. Week 13 leaders

Week 13 observations: Five things I learned

1. Defense derailing Pats, Steelers: Defensive flaws could cost the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers playoff spots. The Patriots still can win the AFC East. They lead the Dolphins and Jets by a game, but it's pretty clear the Patriots might not be a factor in the playoffs. They are 0-5 in road games, and they blew an 11-point lead in a 22-21 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday. Drew Brees picked apart New England's pass defense in Week 12. Peyton Manning did it a few weeks ago. Relatively inexperienced Chad Henne had second-half success on Sunday, which must concern Bill Belichick.

The Steelers have much deeper concerns than the Patriots. Pittsburgh's only hope of making the playoffs is as a wild-card team because it is three games behind the Bengals in the AFC North race. But even a wild card might be a long shot. Raiders QB Bruce Gradkowski completed 10 of 16 passes for 188 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter of the Raiders' shocking 27-24 victory over the Steelers. More amazing was the fact that Gradkowski engineered a 10-play, 88-yard drive in the final 1:56 of regulation.

"Not a lot needs to be said about the end of the game,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Defensively, we didn't make a play to win the game at the end.''

The Steelers made plenty of plays to lose the game in the end. Safety Ryan Mundy made a senseless helmet-to-helmet hit on Johnnie Lee Higgins, drawing a personal foul penalty that gave the Raiders a first down at the Steelers' 11-yard line with 21 seconds left. Cornerback Ike Taylor let Louis Murphy get in front of him for a 23-yard completion that put the ball at the Steelers' 17 a couple of plays before Mundy's penalty.

Maybe age is catching up to the Steelers. They aren't finishing games well on defense. They are now on a four-game losing streak. In 12 games, the Steelers have given up a combined 109 fourth-quarter points. It may not be curtains for the Steelers, but there are holes in this year's version of the Steel Curtain.

2. Still perfect: As long as Brees and Manning stay on the field, the Saints and Colts could go unbeaten during the regular season. That might not happen in Manning's case. Sunday's 27-17 victory over the Titans put the Colts a week or two away from clinching home-field advantage in the AFC. In some ways, the Colts might be preparing to rest Manning because they worked out J.P. Losman on Friday, possibly thinking he might be needed if Jim Sorgi's shoulder injury doesn't get better soon. I doubt that coach Jim Caldwell wants rookie quarterback Curtis Painter to play the final two games.

The Titans' Vince Young entered Week 13 with a five-game winning streak and a hot runner, Chris Johnson. But when the Titans had to settle for a field goal after driving 13 plays to the Colts' 2 in the first quarter, Tennessee showed it wasn't up to the challenge of beating the Colts. To beat Manning, you need touchdown drives. Manning orchestrated three TD drives in his first five possessions. Lost in the Manning headlines is how much the Colts' defense has improved. General manager Bill Polian made the Colts bigger at defensive tackle and stouter at linebacker. Johnson got 113 yards, but the Titans had only 10 points in the first three quarters.

Brees and the Saints can be thankful the Redskins have a tendency to give games away, a fault that will cost Jim Zorn his job at the end of the season. The Redskins play hard for Zorn, but they play dumb. Defensive lapses, poor red zone play calling and a missed chip shot field goal by Shaun Suisham gave New Orleans the opportunity to escape with a 33-30 overtime win. Knowing they have to win to stay ahead of the Vikings in the race for home-field advantage, the Saints can't afford to let up.

3. Fade route: The playoff hopes of the Falcons and Texans crashed in about as ugly a fashion as you can imagine. The Texans have themselves to blame after a 23-18 loss to the Jaguars, and coach Gary Kubiak has to be wondering if owner Bob McNair will stand behind him with Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher available. Discipline problems arose Saturday when wide receiver Jacoby Jones was late for the flight and was left in Houston. Four AFC South losses in four weeks have totally unraveled Houston's offense. The downfall started when Kubiak was unable to come up with answers after tight end Owen Daniels' season-ending injury and Steve Slaton's benching because of fumbling woes. Kubiak might have lost Sunday's game in the fourth quarter when he had RB Chris Brown try a halfback pass from the Jaguars' 5. Safety Gerald Alexander intercepted the pass, killing the threat. What was once an offense loaded with weapons fell into the trap of just throwing the ball to Andre Johnson. Seventeen of the Texans' 37 pass attempts were aimed at Johnson, who caught seven for 99 yards. Ugly.

The Falcons simply have run out of gas. They started Sunday's 34-7 loss to the Eagles down five offensive starters -- quarterback Matt Ryan, halfback Michael Turner, wide receiver Michael Jenkins, guard Harvey Dahl and left tackle Sam Baker. Center Todd McClure hurt his knee in the second half. Ryan is expected to be out another week or two with a turf toe injury. I don't know who had a worse weekend in the Georgia Dome -- the University of Florida or the Falcons.

4. Brady lacking finishing touch: The Miami Dolphins can be thankful the Patriots aren't good closers this season. New England's inability to wear down the Dolphins' defense allowed Henne to come back from an 11-point deficit and beat the Patriots. Tom Brady has been the Mariano Rivera of football. He has a knack for getting better as the clock runs down. That hasn't been the case this year -- at least on the road. In the Patriots' five road losses, Brady is 46-of-87 for 529 yards and three interceptions in second halves. He's thrown only two second-half touchdown passes in those games. In five road games, the Patriots have scored only 24 second-half points and twice have been shut out.

"When you are down there in the red area and you don't score touchdowns, you just give the other team too many opportunities.'' Brady said. "You're not going to win very often when you score 21 points.''

Don't blame the mysterious right finger injury that appeared on Friday's injury report and had Vegas oddmakers taking the Patriots off the books briefly on Saturday. You wonder if his legs tire in the second halves of these games. Regardless, the Dolphins have proved to be the better closers in the AFC East, thanks to Henne, who now has five fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories this season. The biggest thing he did on Sunday was convert third downs, which had been a problem for Henne this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Henne entered Sunday's game completing only 55.3 percent of his passes on third down for 5.1 yards an attempt. Against the Patriots, Henne completed 11 of 15 passes on third down, converting 10 for first downs. At 6-6, the Dolphins are still alive, maybe more for the AFC East than the wild card, but Henne has given them life.

5. Giants come up big: The Giants apparently needed a shake-up. Tom Coughlin benched defensive end Osi Umenyiora and defensive tackle Fred Robbins in favor of Mathias Kiwanuka and former Cowboys defensive tackle Chris Canty. Thanks to those changes and the threat of more, the Giants didn't play soft during their 31-24 victory over Dallas, keeping their hopes of winning the NFC East alive. Tony Romo may have thrown for 392 yards, but he had only two touchdown drives.

This Cowboys loss -- yet another December loss for the Cowboys -- puts the NFC East up for grabs. The Eagles and Cowboys are tied at 8-4, and the Cowboys have a six-year history of losing December games to the Eagles. The Giants are one game behind at 7-5, but they host the Eagles in a critical game in Week 14.

Sunday's game was critical for the Giants because Coughlin could have lost the locker room. Defenders took offense to comments attributed to defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan in which he claimed the defense was soft. Clearly, it had underachieved in the past month and a half. Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said he was proud of the defense for sticking together. In some ways, you have to question the Cowboys' offensive strategy in this one. Romo threw 55 passes, but the Giants had to defend only 23 rushing attempts. I know this is a passing league, but the strategy didn't work.

Clayton's short takes

The Seahawks' 20-17 victory over the 49ers might not be a big deal nationally, but it meant a lot to the Seahawks. General manager Tim Ruskell resigned this week, creating organizational chaos. Knowing head coach Jim Mora lost the GM who hired him and plenty of roster changes might come when the new GM enters, players knew they had to step up. The victory gives the 5-7 Seahawks a chance at maybe a seven- or eight-win season. ... The worst play call of the day might have been the ill-advised trick play in Pittsburgh, where Darren McFadden caught a pass from Bruce Gradkowski and then threw it back to Gradkowski. Steelers linebacker James Harrison sniffed out the play and sacked Gradkowski. On a third-and-10 from the Steelers' 45, the Raiders lost 15 yards and had to punt. ... Titans defensive tackle Tony Brown lost his poise toward the end of the first half against the Colts and cost his team three points. Angered by a push after a play, Brown got off the ground and then tried to poke his fingers into the eyes of guard Kyle DeVan. He received a 15-yard penalty that helped set up a Matt Stover field goal. ... The impact of the new concussion rules was evident in Sunday's inactive lists. By my count, 10 players who were on the injury report with concussions were scratched. Included on the list were Redskins running back Clinton Portis, Eagles halfback Brian Westbrook, Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, Patriots offensive linemen Sebastian Vollmer and Stephen Neal, Rams right tackle Jason Smith, Seahawks defensive end Cory Redding and Texans cornerback Glover Quin. ... Josh Freeman's three interceptions in the red zone are a sign teams aren't respecting the Bucs' running game and just reading the eyes of the rookie quarterback. It makes you wonder why the Bucs put all that money into Derrick Ward, who signed a four-year, $17 million contract. Ward's has 79 carries for 272 yards and one touchdown. Earnest Graham makes $3.5 million a year and Cadillac Williams is on a rookie contract that averages over $3.5 million a year. The Bucs had seven drives inside the Panthers' 25 and came out with only six points. ... Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones put an ugly ending to Lions QB Matthew Stafford's tough day by hitting him late in the fourth quarter and reinjuring his separated left shoulder. His status for next week isn't known. ... It was a weird day for Jay Cutler. He threw for 131 yards in the first quarter, but for only 12 yards the rest of the game. ... The Panthers learned Sunday that they have a pretty good young backup quarterback in Matt Moore. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 161 yards in a solid 16-6 victory over the Buccaneers. ... Cedric Benson made up for lost time after missing two games by rushing 36 times for 110 yards in the Bengals' 23-13 victory over the Lions. The Bengals didn't have to tax their passing offense against a bad Lions team. Carson Palmer needed only 17 completions in the easy victory. ... The Eagles spent plenty of money in free agency, but their best bargain was fullback Leonard Weaver. He had 100 rushing and receiving yards combined in the 34-7 victory over the Falcons and continues to grow in the offense each week. He signed a one-year deal at $1.7 million. ... Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant was called for his fifth pass interference penalty in six games. ... Philip Rivers exposed major problems the Browns have at safety by completing eight passes to tight end Antonio Gates for 167 yards. The Browns were down five starters on defense, including safety Brodney Pool. Coach Eric Mangini considered starting Mike Furrey, a wide receiver, at safety. Rivers worked the middle of the field in a 30-23 Chargers victory that was easier than the score would indicate.

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John Clayton's game balls

Gradkowski

• Offense: Saints QB Drew Brees passed for more than 400 yards in a 33-30 overtime victory over the Redskins, but how can you not give the game ball to Pittsburgh native Bruce Gradkowski? Gradkowski led the Raiders to a 27-24 victory over the Steelers, executing an 88-yard game-winning touchdown drive in the final 1:56. He won the game with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy. Gradkowski threw for 188 yards and three TDs in the fourth quarter. For the day, he was 20-of-33 for 308 yards. He's made everyone forget JaMarcus Russell.

Hali

• Defense: After 11 games, Tamba Hali can officially collect his diploma. He's graduated into a 3-4 linebacker. Hali had an incredible day during the Chiefs' 44-13 loss to the Broncos. He was a one-man band for the defense, with three sacks, two forced fumbles and one additional tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Overall, he hit Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton four times. Hali was drafted as a defensive end, but Kansas City's switch to the 3-4 forced him to change his game. He had 41 tackles and 3½ sacks in the first 11 games. If he can carry the momentum in the final four games, Hali will establish himself as a legitimate pass-rushing linebacker.

Britt

• Special teams: Rookie wideout Kenny Britt has already established himself as a big-play threat for the Titans' offense. On Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium he established himself as a kick-returning threat. He had five returns for 175 yards, an impressive 35-yard average. This was the most extensive look Britt has had as a returner. In the first 11 weeks, he had only two returns for 58 yards. Expect him to finish the season as the kick returner. The guy is explosive.

ESPN video

Playoff picture

If the playoffs started today, here's how the teams would be seeded. Teams seeded fifth and sixth are wild cards.

NFC SEEDS

1. New Orleans (12-0) | Next: at Atlanta
2. Minnesota (10-2) | Next: vs. Cincinnati
3. Arizona (8-4) | Next: at San Francisco
4. Dallas (8-4) | Next: vs. San Diego
5. Philadelphia (8-4) | Next: at N.Y. Giants
6. Green Bay (8-4) | Next: at Chicago

In the hunt: N.Y. Giants (7-5), Atlanta (6-6), Chicago (5-7), Carolina (5-7), San Francisco (5-7) and Seattle (5-7)

AFC SEEDS

1. Indianapolis (12-0) | Next: vs. Denver
2. San Diego (9-3) | Next: at Dallas
3. Cincinnati (9-3) | Next: at Minnesota
4. New England (7-5) | Next: vs. Carolina
5. Denver (8-4) | Next: at Indianapolis
6. Jacksonville (7-5) | Next: vs. Miami

In the hunt: Baltimore (6-6), Pittsburgh (6-6), Miami (6-6), N.Y. Jets (6-6), Tennessee (5-7) and Houston (5-7)

Loose ends

• Week 13 Studs & Duds

• Experts' picks: How did we do?
Sunday Countdown | ESPN.com

• Coach Ratings: Week 13

• NFL Blog Network

Week 13 rundown

• N.Y. Jets 19, Buffalo 13
The Bills have probably seen enough of Jets RB Thomas Jones, who has rushed for a combined 319 yards in two games against Buffalo this season.

• Denver 44, Kansas City 13
Arrowhead has historically been a tough place for the Broncos. Sunday's game was a breeze, as Denver rolled up 245 rushing yards.

• Philadelphia 34, Atlanta 7
The Eagles were well in control by the time Michael Vick scored his first TD since Oct. 15, 2006. Without Matt Ryan and Michael Turner, the Falcons failed to muster much of an offense.

• Chicago 17, St. Louis 9
Jay Cutler completed only eight passes, but it was his first game without an interception since Week 4. Bears LB Jamar Williams had an eye-popping 18 tackles.

•  Cincinnati 23, Detroit 13
The Bengals enjoyed a two-game soft spot (Browns, Lions) in the schedule. Now they begin a brutal two-game stretch (at Minnesota and at San Diego).

•  Indianapolis 27, Tennessee 17
The Colts, who recorded a record-tying 21st straight regular-season win, made a statement against one of the hottest teams in the league. And Colts fans didn't even have to sweat this one out.

•  Miami 22, New England 21
Don't hand the AFC East title to the Patriots just yet. The Dolphins moved back to .500 (6-6), only one game behind the road-weary Pats.

•  Oakland 27, Pittsburgh 24
Say what you want about the Raiders, but they've managed to beat some pretty good teams in 2009. Add the Steelers to a list that also includes the Eagles and Bengals.

•  New Orleans 33, Washington 30 (OT)
Every undefeated team needs a little luck. Washington's Shaun Suisham was wide right with a gimme 23-yard field goal attempt that would have sealed the victory for the Redskins.

•  Carolina 16, Tampa Bay 6
The key to Carolina's success? Get Jonathan Stewart into the end zone. The Panthers have now won 10 straight games in which Stewart has scored a rushing TD.

•  Jacksonville 23, Houston 18
Is anyone paying attention to the Jaguars? At 7-5, they might be the most overlooked playoff contender in the league.

•  San Diego 30, Cleveland 23
LaDainian Tomlinson's Hall of Fame résumé keeps growing. LT scored his 150th career TD and passed Jim Brown for eighth place on the all-time rushing list.

•  N.Y. Giants 31, Dallas 24
The Cowboys had the edge in total yards, turnovers and time of possession. But two big plays by the Giants continued Dallas' December woes and changed the complexion of the NFC East race.

•  Seattle 20, San Francisco 17
A career passing day from Alex Smith (310 yards, 2 TDs) wasn't enough for the 49ers, whose costly mistakes included a fumble on a botched punt-return reverse.

•  Arizona 30, Minnesota 17
Disappearing act. Where was the Vikings' vaunted pass rush? Kurt Warner (285 yards, 3 TD passes) wasn't sacked and had a comfortable pocket and clear passing lanes most of the night.

MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL

• Baltimore at Green Bay (ESPN, 8:30 ET)

-- ESPN.com

Looking ahead

An early look at next weekend's biggest games:

• Denver (8-4) at Indianapolis (12-0): Can the Colts get their record 22nd straight regular-season victory? The Broncos don't have a good track record in Indy.

• Cincinnati (9-3) at Minnesota (10-2): The first meeting between these teams since 2005.

• Philadelphia (8-4) at N.Y. Giants (7-5): The Giants are back in the NFC East race. Will it be only a temporary condition?

• Week 14 schedule