November 25, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) calls a play at the line of scrimmage against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE
NFL playoff picture taking shape
The Titans and Chargers lost heartbreakers that crushed their fans’ postseason dreams, the 49ers and Rams each had multiple defensive touchdowns in big road wins, and Ryan Tannehill got the best of Russell Wilson in a battle of first round quarterbacks down in Miami. The Giants offense got its groove back, the Steelers offense did not, and Carson Palmer’s return to Cincinnati didn’t exactly go as he had probably hoped. And that’s just scratching the surface. Here are my Ten Takeaways from the NFL Sunday that was. —Peter Schrager
Jacksonville may have a franchise quarterback on its roster. His name is Chad Henne.
It’s all we heard last summer out of Jacksonville: Blaine Gabbert was going to make “the leap” in his second year as the Jaguars starter. Well, the Jags may have found their franchise quarterback — Gabbert just isn’t his last name. Chad Henne was magnificent on Sunday, leading the Jaguars to just their second win of the season in his first start of the year. In his first win as a starter since 2010, Henne completed 17 of 26 passes for 261 yards and tossed 2 touchdowns in a 24-19 victory over Tennessee. The Jaguars had been outscored 153-44 in five losses at EverBank Field this season and trailed 3-0 after an early Henne interception on his first pass attempt of the afternoon. Though he was sacked seven times, Henne got going with five completions to Justin Blackmon and four to Cecil Shorts III. Don’t look now, but with Henne under center, Blackmon and Shorts have become legitimate receiving options and Jacksonville’s become a legitimate spoiler. They’ve got a good, young QB on that roster. His name is Chad Henne.
Eli Manning’s arm isn’t “tired” after all
It’d been two weeks since the Giants last took the field. Following New York’s 31-13 loss in Cincinnati in Week 10, there was plenty of talk around whether Eli Manning was an “elite” quarterback and serious debate over whether he had a “tired” arm. Though the former likely won’t be answered by Sunday’s regular season win over the Packers, the latter can be. Manning was sharp and his arm was lively in New York’s 38-10 thrashing of the Packers on Sunday night. Using the bye week to rest and prepare for a banged up Green Bay defense, Manning connected on 16 of 30 passes for 249 yards and tossed three touchdowns. The Giants entered the game as losers of two straight, but Manning hadn’t looked like himself in over a month. He was back to the Eli of old on Sunday night, silencing his critics. Well, for this week, at least.
Jay Cutler has to be in the MVP conversation
I know he’s not a media favorite. I know the ex-jocks on TV hate the fact he sulks and grimaces on the sidelines. I know he doesn’t do the puff piece interviews we see out of Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers every other week. But I can’t name a player who is more valuable to his team this season than Jay Cutler. Without Cutler in the second half of Chicago’s loss to Houston and last week’s debacle vs. San Francisco, the Bears looked absolutely lost. With Cutler, they’re a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Cutler was magnificent on Sunday, two weeks removed from a concussion, leading the Bears to a much-needed 28-10 victory over the Vikings in Chicago. The Bears lost Matt Forte, Charles Tillman and Devin Hester to injuries — all costly losses. But with Cutler under center, they’re contenders. He won’t get much MVP love this January, but keep in mind these facts — the Bears were 7-3 with Cutler last year; 1-5 without him. They are 8-1 with Cutler this season; 0-2 without him.
Like many Jets icons, Fireman Ed had a nice run but came up short of Super Bowl glory.
“Fireman Ed” Anzalone, the longtime face of the New York Jets fan base and the leader of countless “J-E-T-S, Jets! Jets! Jets!” chants, wrote a heartfelt op-ed in New York’s Metro newspaper Sunday night. Essentially stepping down as Gang Green’s unofficial mascot, Anzalone wrote, “Although I can ‘hold my own,’ I do not want to lose my temper and make a stupid mistake. I have a responsibility to the families and kids that enjoy the game and Fireman Ed.” A Jets fan since 1975, “Fireman Ed” is walking away from a Jets team that was embarrassed in a 49-19 loss to the rival Patriots on Thanksgiving night. He called it a night and left the game before halftime. The Jets called it a night far earlier.
Very quietly, the Bengals have snuck into the AFC playoff picture
You might not have noticed, but the Cincinnati Bengals are quietly 6-5 and winners of three straight games. If the playoffs were to start this week, they’d be one game outside of the postseason. Playing better defense and long removed from their four-game skid that plagued them in October, the Bengals have the Chargers, Eagles and Cowboys — three teams with losing records — up ahead on their schedule. They finish the year with games against the Steelers and Ravens. The Bengals essentially control their playoff destiny. Watching them beat up the Giants, Chiefs and Raiders the past three weeks — I wouldn’t count them out.
Things go from bad to worse for Chargers fans
Giving up 35 straight points and losing a nationally televised game in which they were up 24-0 at halftime? That was bad. Coming off a bye week and losing 7-6 to the woeful Browns? That was awful. But Sunday’s loss to Baltimore — a game in which San Diego had the Ravens facing a fourth-and-29 at their own 37, with 1:37 left in regulation and down three points? That’s the worst Chargers loss yet. Ray Rice’s miraculous 30-yard catch and run was San Diego’s season in a microcosm. So close, but yet, so far away. "I don't know what to say," longtime Charger Quentin Jammer said after Sunday’s 16-13 overtime loss. "A play like that should never happen. You can't give them a chance to execute that play. But we had some breakdowns, for sure." At 4-7, it’s over for the Bolts. For a team that started the season out 3-1 and had the Broncos on the ropes in Week 6, it’s incredible that the year is already over by Thanksgiving weekend.
The Steelers need a healthy Ben Roethlisberger — fast
The Steelers miss Ben Roethlisberger. Desperately. After a 13-10 loss to the Ravens in which Byron Leftwich couldn’t hit an open receiver last week, the Charlie Batch-led Steelers fell to the lowly Browns 20-14 in Cleveland on Sunday. Pittsburgh had 8 turnovers, leading to Cleveland’s second victory over the Steelers in their last eighteen meetings. Batch was awful, but the loss wasn’t all his fault. The Steelers were sloppy on both sides of the ball, getting penalized 9 times for 68 yards. At 6-5, Pittsburgh is still in the thick of the AFC playoff picture. Lose next week in Baltimore and things get a little murky. There were reports that Roethlisberger could be back for that one. They need him.
Two weeks after being benched, Janoris Jenkins and Chris Givens were the Rams' difference makers
St. Louis Rams rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins and second-year wideout Chris Givens were benched two weeks ago for missing curfew the night before a game. They came to practice the following week and were instructed by coach Jeff Fisher to run the stadium stairs. Both young players went from the doghouse to the penthouse on Sunday, as they each made huge impact plays in the Rams' much-needed 31-17 win over Arizona. Jenkins became the first rookie defender since 1960 to return two interceptions for touchdowns and Givens caught 5 balls for 115 yards and scored a game-changing touchdown. St. Louis got its first road win of the season. Jenkins and Givens were the defensive and offensive standouts, respectively.
Cue up the “Colin-sanity” headlines. Kaepernick’s here to stay.
Though it wasn’t the most popular decision in football circles this week, Jim Harbaugh went with the “hot hand” and started second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick in New Orleans vs. the Saints on Sunday. He flourished in a 31-21 victory. The 49ers defense returned two interceptions for touchdowns for the first time since 1995, but Kaepernick did his part, too. In just his second career start — in the most hostile of road environments — Kaepernick ran for a touchdown, tossed a touchdown, and helped San Francisco win the time of possession battle with heady play and fancy footwork. Alex Smith had a nice run as the 49ers starting QB. It’s Kaepernick’s time now.
The Falcons are the class of the NFC South
After hearing the whispers from the cynics all week after an ugly 23-19 win over the hapless Cardinals, the Falcons went into Tampa Bay and beat the surging Buccaneers in their building on Sunday. Matt Ryan shook off a 0 TD/5 interception outing last weekend and connected for 353 yards in a gritty 24-23 comeback victory over a team that entered the game as winners of four straight. The win was Atlanta’s seventh victory this season by seven or fewer points, tying an NFL record for teams that have started 10-1 or 11-0. Winning close games during the regular season won’t win any style points, but it could help come January — a month when the Falcons have had plenty of struggles in recent years.