1. Seattle (12-2). Whipped the Giants in a humiliating way. Next time the Seahawks get on a plane could be for the same road trip they just made this weekend—to Newark, but this time for the Super Bowl, six weeks from today. Two regular season games left in the Land of Noise, both early Sunday afternoon Pacific Time starts: Arizona next week, St. Louis in Week 17. Looks to me like the ’Hawks will glide comfortably into home-field through the NFC playoffs.
MASSIVE LINE OF DEMARCATION
2. San Francisco (10-4). Colin Kaepernick’s last four games: seven touchdowns, one interception, 104.6 rating, 29 carries, 111 yards … and totally in control.
3. Denver (11-3). Willing to think it was just an off-night against a foe who knows the Broncos so very well, and a coach who knows Peyton Manning so very well. But what I didn’t like was Denver’s inability to get a big stop, and Manning’s plodding last drive. The best offense in football has to be better than that, even without Wes Welker.
4. Carolina (10-4). What an amazing story: If Carolina beats the Saints at home in Week 16 and the Falcons on the road in Week 17, the Panthers win the NFC South, and New Orleans will be either the fifth or sixth seed.
5. New Orleans (10-4). Saints at Panthers Sunday. I do not trust the Saints on the road. Who does, other than Mrs. Drew Brees? Last 10 weeks, Saints, away from the Superdome: 1-4 … losses by 3, 6, 27 and 11.
6. New England (10-4). Five games in a row, every one on the edge of a cliff. Loss at Carolina. Twin 34-31 wins over Denver, Houston. Gift 27-26 win over Cleveland. And Sunday’s game, ending with three failed shots at the end zone, down 24-20 at very loud Miami in the final seconds. So 3-2 in those five, and all it means is the Patriots are in every game, dominating no one.
7. Kansas City (11-3). Two games, 101 points. Even against putrid defenses, that’s pretty good.
8. Cincinnati (9-5). This is the kind of year it’s been in the NFL: I woke up Sunday thinking the Bengals would beat New England and maybe Denver on neutral fields. Then there was an egg-laying of the highest degree in Pittsburgh. So now, you ask me about the Bengals, who have lost at Cleveland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh this season, and I’m throwing darts.
9. Indianapolis (9-5). America’s (Psycho) Team checks in: In the last six, Colts have lost by 30, won by three, lost by 29, won by eight, lost by 14, won by 22. Football is a funny game.
10. Miami (8-6). Ryan Tannehill looks more like the 12-year fix for the Dolphins every Sunday.
11. Arizona (9-5). The nearly fatal onside kick by the Titans could not only have cost the Cardinals a win at Tennessee. It could have cost them a member of the hands team, Larry Fitzgerald, in the mayhem.
12. Chicago (8-6). Just when we were ready to fry The Decision, and the coach and the quarterback, Jay Cutler goes and leads three fourth-quarter touchdown drives in Cleveland to win 38-31.
13. Baltimore (7-6). Dennis Pitta on DeAndre Levy. Huge matchup tonight at Ford Field in what’s going to be a very, very good game—and in what kicks off three hellish games for the Ravens in 14 days: at Detroit, New England, at Cincinnati.
14. Philadelphia (8-6). Some alarming failures on defense, but it’s the same D that allowed 21 or fewer in the previous nine games. Lucky for the Eagles, Dallas was Dallas Sunday.
15. (tie) San Diego (7-7). Norv Turner’s last 50 games: 25-25. Mike McCoy’s first 14 games: 7-7. The Chargers look better than that, I know. But haven’t we said that six times a year for the last decade?
15. (tie) Detroit (7-6). No turnovers, and the Lions are sixth or seventh here. The normal turnover-filled game, they’re 18th. You tell me which it is tonight. I have no clue.
The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Jamaal Charles, running back, Kansas City. When’s the last time a running back caught three touchdown passes in the first 25 minutes of a game? And four for the game? (Okay, Elias: Go scurrying for that one. You know what? Elias will find it. Guaranteed.) Charles caught screens for 49- and 39-yard scores in the first eight minutes, ran for a one-yard TD early in the second, then caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith with 5:42 left in the half. Four touchdowns in the first half, three through the air. For the game, Charles had eight rushes for a modest 20 yards, and an intergalactic 195 receiving yards on eight catches. And the four touchdown receptions.
Ryan Tannehill, quarterback, Miami. Looked like more of the same seven-game losing streak to New England when the Pats broke out to a 10-0 lead in South Florida. But Tannehill (25-37, 312 yards, three touchdowns, no picks, 120.6 rating) led Miami on scoring drives of 82, 48, 66 and 60 yards in the last 33 minutes of the game, completing a 14-yard dart to Marcus Thigpen for what proved to be the game-winner. That’s seven straight games with a completion percentage of at least 60 for Tannehill, who outdueled Tom Brady when it mattered most.
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Washington. Can’t imagine a player feeling more pressure entering the game Sunday, with the focus of the Robert Griffin III benching and the spotlight on what Washington might be able to get in trade for Cousins after the season. Knowing that his every move would be watched on tape by the Clevelands and Jacksonvilles of the league, Cousins completed 29 of 45 passes for 381 yards, three touchdowns and two picks (94.8 rating), and drove Washington 80 yards in 13 plays for what appeared to be the tying touchdown at the end of the fourth quarter … but coach Mike Shanahan chose to go for the two-point conversion and the win, and Cousins threw incomplete.
Matt Cassel, quarterback, Minnesota. This was the Cassel that Scott Pioli staked his Kansas City reputation on four and half years ago: 26 of 35, 382 yards, two touchdowns, one pick and a six-yard quarterback draw for a touchdown. Maybe this is the quarterback the Vikings have been looking for all along.
Defensive Players of the Week
Robert Quinn, defensive end, St. Louis. Who in their right mind had the Saints scoring three points in the first 35 minutes of a game they had to have … and in a dome no less? St. Louis pestered Drew Brees all day, and Quinn had much to do with that, with two sacks (including a forced fumble), a tackle for loss and consistent pressure. For the year, Quinn has an NFC-leading 15 sacks.
Michael Thomas, cornerback, Miami. They write TV pilots about the week Thomas just had (see the lead to this column), and people watch them. Thomas was yanked off the 49ers’ practice squad on Monday afternoon, flew cross-country and arrived in Miami at midnight, learned bits of the defense during the week, was activated for the huge game against New England to play special teams, and was inserted in the regular defense when Brent Grimes was hurt in the fourth quarter. He broke up what looked to be a winning touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Danny Amendola on the last series, and, on the final play for the game, picked off Brady in the end zone to clinch the 24-20 Miami victory. “I am numb,” he told me. “I cannot believe this happened.”
Zack Bowman, cornerback, Chicago. In a game the Bears had to have, they got awful quarterbacking from Jay Cutler in his return to the starting lineup and needed two very big plays from Bowman to escape Cleveland with a win. With Jason Campbell driving the Browns in a 3-3 game in the first half, Bowman picked his first pass off at the Bears’ 40. And on the second play of the second half, Campbell special-delivered a throw to Bowman, who picked it off and ran 43 yards for the touchdown to give the Bears a 17-10 lead. Chicago won by that same margin, 38-31.
Corey Liuget, defensive tackle, San Diego. His rush through a double-team with less than six minutes to play at Denver, knocking Peyton Manning’s right arm off course, gave San Diego an easy interception and clinched a huge Thursday night upset. Liuget wants attention for his play, and for the play of the Charger defensive front, and he certainly deserves it based on his performance over the past three months.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Kendall Hunter, running back, San Francisco. In a terrific heads-up play, Hunter sprinted downfield on a kickoff with the Niners trying to close out a game at Tampa Bay with a 23-14 lead and fewer than five minutes left. The Bucs tried to execute a reverse, and Hunter was not fooled. He popped Eric Page trying to hand it off, the ball bounced free, and there was Hunter. He grabbed the loose ball and rolled in from two yards out. Ballgame. I just love how alert Hunter was not only in not falling for the reverse, but in following the ball.
Coach of the Week
Joe Philbin, head coach, Miami. Might not just be Coach of the Week. Might be Coach of the Year. Since Jonathan Martin threw his tray of pasta down in the Dolphins cafeteria and stalked off the team, followed soon by the suspension of Richie Incognito, sending the team into mayhem, Miami is 5-2 … including Sunday’s clutch 24-20 win over New England. The two losses have been by a total of seven points (to Tampa Bay and Carolina), and it’s very clear this is a well-grounded team with a mature approach. You’ve got to hand it to Philbin for keeping the team intact at such a fragile time.
Goats of the Week
Tony Romo, quarterback, Dallas. In the annals of blown ends of games in Tony Romo history, this one has to ascend to No. 1. Romo threw one interception with 2:50 to go and the Cowboys nursing a 36-31 lead trying to run out the clock … and a second interception with 1:24 left and the Cowboys trying to come back from a 37-36 deficit. This one was as ugly as they come, and the ramifications could involve jobs. Multiple jobs.
Garrett Hartley, kicker, New Orleans. Down 27-16 in the final seconds, the Saints needed a 26-yard field goal by Hartley, an onside-kick recovery and a touchdown to send the game to overtime. The field goal was the gimme, the lock. But Hartley shanked it left. That’s a mistake you simply cannot make.
Eli Manning, quarterback, New York Giants. Hate to pile on, but another in a long line of brutal performances this season, a five-interception job against Seattle, leaves him with 25 picks for the season … and a mind-boggling 81 in the last 62 games. An embarrassing 23-0 loss to the Seahawks was Sunday’s result in an increasingly horrible 5-9 season.