First Down, Fourth Down: Corey Webster, Ben Roethlisberger flop
The Baltimore Ravens may not have played better all season than they did Sunday, while the defending champion New York Giants looked every bit the part of a team destined to miss the playoffs.
If you had to boil Baltimore’s 33-14 blowout win down to one matchup, though, it was this one: Ravens receiver Torrey Smith vs. Giants cornerback Corey Webster.
Despite Smith leaving the Ravens’ loss last Sunday with a concussion and being listed as questionable all week, Baltimore chose that head-to-head as the one to exploit. Smith made five catches for 88 yards and a touchdown, part of the Ravens’ 533-yard offensive onslaught that exposed just about every area of New York’s defense.
Both Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce topped 100 yards on the ground, too, and Flacco barely felt even a tiny bit of pressure from a Giants’ front that appears to have hit the wall.
As a result, the Ravens have now locked up the AFC North while the Giants need a win and a bunch of help in Week 17 to reach the playoffs.
First Down: The Indianapolis Colts.
The best news of all for the Colts is that Chuck Pagano, out since Oct. 1 while battling leukemia, will return to his post as head coach for Week 17. But running a happy second is that the Colts wrapped up a playoff berth Sunday with a win over the Chiefs.
Even though Andrew Luck’s arrival helped turn this team around in a hurry, it’s worth remembering that the Colts finished 2-14 last season (and were winless heading into Week 15). Indianapolis likely will head to Baltimore in the wild-card round — a winnable game, sure, but everything from here out is gravy. The Colts already have reestablished themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the post-Peyton Manning era.
Fourth Down: Ben Roethlisberger (and Mike Tomlin).
In overtime at Dallas last week, Roethlisberger tossed an awful interception that led to a game-winning field goal for the Cowboys. He had a chance to redeem himself — and move his team to the verge of a playoff berth — on Sunday against Cincinnati.
Instead, with time ticking down in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger threw another egregious INT, setting up a last-second field goal for Cincinnati. Add in a pick-6 Big Ben fired earlier Sunday, and it’s hard to look past the QB position when laying blame for Pittsburgh’s failures down the stretch.
Don’t completely overlook Mike Tomlin, though. Despite his defense playing dominant football and Roethlisberger struggling badly against Cincinnati, Tomlin pressed the issue late in the fourth quarter. Rather than take a knee and head to overtime, at home, Tomlin rolled the dice with his passing game.
Roethlisberger ensured that Tomlin’s decision backfired, and the Steelers will be home for the postseason as a result.
First Down: The Redskins-Cowboys game in Week 17.
Dallas gaffed with a chance to step closer to a playoff berth Sunday, falling at home to New Orleans. Despite that, however, the Cowboys will head to Washington in Week 17 with a chance to win the division — they can thank the Ravens, who smoked the Giants late Sunday, for that opportunity.
Last year, Dallas had this very same scenario: a winner-takes-all game for the NFC East. The ‘Boys were roundly battered by the Giants that time. Standing in their way in 2012 are the resurgent Redskins, who held off Philadelphia on Sunday to stay atop the division.
This is, by far, the biggest game of the regular season’s final week, especially because the loser likely (definitely, if it’s Dallas) will not qualify for the playoffs.
Fourth Down: Being a Jets or Cardinals’ quarterback.
New York turned its offense over Sunday to option No. 3 at QB, Greg McElroy. He was sacked 11 times and turned it over twice in a loss to the Chargers. Later, the Cardinals pulled rookie Ryan Lindley for Brian Hoyer, who was added off waivers just two weeks back and became Arizona’s fourth QB of the season.
Hoyer did not take nearly the punishment McElroy did, but he also led exactly zero scoring drives against the Bears.
First Down: Kendall Reyes, Shaun Phillips and Geno Atkins.
A little love for the defense, on the heels of that McElroy mention. Reyes and Phillips played central roles in San Diego’s manhandling of the Jets’ offensive line — that duo combined for six sacks (3.5 for Reyes, 2.5 for Phillips) and Phillips forced a fumble.
Atkins, meanwhile, registered 2.5 sacks against Roethlisberger. He set the tone early, taking down Roethlisberger to snuff out an early Pittsburgh possession. His dynamite performance spearheaded a stellar defensive showing from the Bengals, who allowed just 10 points on the road to Pittsburgh … and scored seven, thanks to a Leon Hall interception return.
Fourth Down: Houston’s mojo.
Following a 42-14 loss in New England in Week 14, the Texans pulled it together long enough last Sunday to down Indianapolis and clinch the AFC South. But they regressed again this week, turning in an absolute stinker against a much hungrier Minnesota team.
The low point(s): As Arian Foster headed to the locker room with an irregular heart beat (which he swears is a minor issue), Ben Tate was stuffed on 2nd-and-goal from the Minnesota 1, then Matt Schaub took a 14-yard sack on 3rd-and-goal. Houston wound up kicking a field goal, which left the Texans down 16-6.
The problem now is that Houston closes the year at Indianapolis. A loss there would allow both the Broncos and Patriots to jump over Houston in the standings, costing the Texans home-field advantage and forcing them to play an extra postseason game.
First Down: The NFC North (not you, Detroit).
With the Cowboys and Giants tripping up Sunday, the NFC North’s chances of getting two teams to the postseason dance raised exponentially. The 9-6 Vikings now control their own destiny — beat Green Bay in Week 17, and the Vikings are in. And if Minnesota fails to get the job done, Chicago would then claim a spot with a victory in Detroit.
Only if both the Vikings and Bears lose next Sunday could two NFC East teams earn postseason berths.
Fourth Down: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
When Tampa Bay was 6-4 and riding a four-game win streak, Greg Schiano looked like a sleeper Coach of the Year candidate. Now, the Bucs are 6-9, have lost five in a row and, based on Sunday’s showing against St. Louis, have totally folded up shop on Schiano.
It’s hard to imagine Schiano’s job would be in jeopardy already. If Tampa Bay starts 2013 slowly, on the other hand …
First Down: Jamaal Charles.
It came in another losing cause for the now 2-13 Chiefs, but Charles deserves a little love for the 226 yards he put up against Indianapolis. Charles averaged more than 10 yards on his 22 carries — one week after rushing for 10 yards total at Oakland. He’s now at 1,456 yards on the season, 11 shy of a career best.
Fourth Down: Mike Munchak.
If Munchak, in his second season as Tennessee’s coach, wasn’t on the hot seat headed into Week 16, well … he might want to update that resume now. Munchak’s Titans absolutely tanked in all phases during a 55-7 loss to the Packers.
Tennessee’s only win since a Week 11 bye came last Monday against the comically inept Jets. Fresh off a 9-7 record in 2011, the Titans were expected to contend in the AFC South this year. Instead, they hit double-digit losses for the second time in four seasons and clearly sit third in the division’s pecking order, behind Houston and Indianapolis.