THE TOP HEADLINES:
The Detroit Lions Make the Playoffs for the First Time Since 1999 by Routing the San Diego Chargers 38-10 at Ford Field; Chargers Head Coach Norv Turner's Job is in Jeopardy
It's hard to believe these same Detroit Lions (10-5) had set an NFL record for futility just three years ago with that infamous 0-16 mark. The game was as lopsided as the score indicates. The Lions set four new franchise records, which included Matthew Stafford (373-3-0) amassing 4,518 passing yards on the season to shatter Scott Mitchell's single-season record from 1995. By the way, 1995 was the last time Detroit had logged double-digit wins in the regular season. Keeping Stafford healthy for the entire season obviously has been the key; coming into 2011, he had missed 19 of 32 games during his first two pro seasons due to various injuries. Surrounding Stafford with a strong supporting cast that includes Calvin Johnson (4-102-1), Nate Burleson (6-83-0), Brandon Pettigrew (9-80-1) and the resurgent Kevin Smith (61 total yards and two total touchdowns) obviously has played a huge role in the Detroit triggerman's success.
The ol' December magic that we had seen from the San Diego Chargers (7-8) finally ran out despite the efforts of Philip Rivers (299-1-2) and Malcom Floyd (6-95-1). During the last few years under head coach Norv Turner, the team would start badly and finish up strong to make the playoffs. This season, the Chargers started strong, slumped in the middle and tried to rebound with a last-season postseason push, which the Lions snuffed out. Rumors are already flying that Turner and general manager A.J. Smith are likely out at the end of the season, because this talented San Diego team has badly underachieved on their watch. The Chargers have said they won't consider making any changes until the regular season has ended.
The New England Patriots Overcome Their Biggest Deficit of the Season to Upend the Miami Dolphins 27-24 to Clinch the AFC East and a First-Round Playoff Bye
As many suspected, the New England Patriots (12-3) had a letdown the week after they won the hard-fought "Tim Tebow Bowl" over the Denver Broncos, but I can't remember the last time I saw a Bill Belichick-coached team play such a terrible half of football. The Patriots did not score in the first half, and they had very little success stopping the Miami Dolphins (5-10). However, following what some media sources have described as a profanity-laced tirade from Belichick at halftime, New England took charge in the second half. Tom Brady (304-1-0 and 9-17-2 rushing) took the team on his back, relying on a no-huddle offense and receiving better protection from his offensive line. The much-maligned Patriots defense only gave up a touchdown to the Dolphins with less than two minutes left. Wes Welker (12-138-0) led New England in receiving while Stevan Ridely (13-64-0) topped the team in rushing. With Brady carrying a painfully mediocre-at-best rushing attack and a leaky defense, how far can New England go in the playoffs?
The Dolphins lost for the third time in their last eight games after starting the season 0-7. They are 1-1 under interim head coach Todd Bowles and are still playing hard. However, two turnovers -- a fumbled snap and a pick by Matt Moore (294-3-1), who played well otherwise -- opened the doors for the Patriots comeback. Brandon Marshall (7-156-1) was Moore's top target, and Reggie Bush (22-113-0 and 2-26-0 receiving) paced the ground attack.
The New York Giants Earn Big Apple Bragging Rights and Silence the Smack-Talking New York Jets with a 29-14 Triumph; the G-Men Set Up a Huge NFC East Showdown Next Week with the Dallas Cowboys While the Jets Fight for their Playoff Lives
I'm not going to delve into all the post-game trash talking -- especially the entertaining exchange of holiday greetings between Brandon Jacobs and Rex Ryan -- because the four-letter sports network (you know the one) has aired the soundbites non-stop during the last few days. Following their disastrous Week 14 loss to the Washington Redskins, the New York Giants (8-7) badly needed this one. The sagging G-Men defense came up big, sacking Mark Sanchez (258-1-2) five times (including once for a safety) and picking him twice. Eli Manning (225-1-1) completed just 33.3 percent of his throws, but he made his completions count. One of them was a 99-yard strike to emerging stud Victor Cruz (3-164-1) late in the first half. What had been a sputtering Giants rushing attack caught fire in the second half with Ahmad Bradshaw (15-54-2) scoring on runs of 14 yards and 19 yards.
Sanchez also scored on a one-yard run, but he looked like a deer caught in the headlights most of the time against the Giants ferocious second-half pass rush. If the Jets miss the playoffs (they need to beat the Miami Dolphins next week and get some help), his days as the starter may be numbered. Dustin Keller (8-77-0) was the Green and White's leading receiver in this contest, and Shonn Greene (14-58-0) was held in check. By the way, the loss wasn't all Sanchez's fault. Ryan's vaunted defense fizzled in the second half, and the team committed 10 penalties for 95 yards.
THE OTHER NOTABLE GAMES:
· Philadelphia Eagles 20 | Dallas Cowboys 7 -- What had been billed as an exciting NFC East showdown lost its luster early. The New York Giants 29-14 victory over the New York Jets earlier in the day eliminated the Eagles (7-8) from the playoff hunt, and the Cowboys (8-7) lost Tony Romo (bruised throwing hand) for the game after he had attempted just two passes. Backup Stephen McGee (182-1-0 and 4-28-0) was unable to move the team consistently during most of the game, but he tossed a garbage-time touchdown pass to Miles Austin (4-40-1) with 12 seconds left. Dez Bryant led all Cowboys in receiving (6-62-0). Sammy Morris (13-29-0) was disappointing in his time share with the injured Felix Jones (4-24-0). For the Eagles, who have won three straight contests, Michael Vick (293-2-0 and 3-10-0 rushing) logged one of his most productive game in a while, and Jeremy Maclin (5-72-1), Brent Celek (2-52-1) and DeSean Jackson (5-90-0) all contributed. LeSean McCoy (13-35-0 and 1-10-0) was held in check most of the afternoon.
· Green Bay Packers 35 | Chicago Bears 21 -- Rebounding from their first loss of 2011 last week, the Packers (14-1) clinched home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs by ripping the Jay Cutler, Matt Forte and Johnny Knox-less Bears (7-8), which eliminated them from playoff contention. Although Green Bay outscored Chicago 14-7 in the first half, the Packers were badly outgained in yardage, because Bears third-string running back Kahlil Bell (23-121-0 and 4-38-0 receiving) ran well, keeping Aaron Rodgers (283-5-0) and the Packers offense off the field for long stretches. Rodgers and company rallied in the second half with three huge scoring drives to put the game out of reach. Jordy Nelson (6-115-2) and James Jones (4-50-2) torched a suspect Bears secondary regularly. Chicago third-straight quarterback Josh McCown (242-1-2 and 8-38-0), who made his first NFL start since 2007, played solidly overall.
· Buffalo Bills 40 | Denver Broncos 14 -- Tebow Mania didn't make the trip to Orchard Park. The Bills (6-9) snapped their seven-game losing streak and resembled that successful team that you may remember from the beginning of the season, blasting a Denver (8-7) team that clearly letdown following an emotional loss to the New England Patriots last week. The opportunistic Bills defense picked Tim Tebow (185-1-4 and 10-34-1 rushing) four times, returning two of them for touchdowns. Demarius Thomas (4-76-0) saw his two-game scoring streak snapped. Since Buffalo scored twice on defense and once on special teams (Leodis McKelvin returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown), the offense didn't have to do much. C.J. Spiller (16-111-1 and 2-27-0) led the offense for the second week in a row while Ryan Fitzpatrick (196-0-0) had a quiet game.
· San Francisco 49ers 19 | Seattle Seahawks 17 -- This looks like it's going to be an interesting NFC West divisional rivalry during the next few years. San Francisco rallied with a go-ahead field goal with 3:44 left in the game. David Akers set a new NFL record with 42 successful field goals for the red-zone challenged 49ers (12-3), who remained in position to keep their No. 2 playoff seed while eliminating the Seahawks (7-8) from the post-season hunt. Frank Gore (23-83-1) paced the super-conservative San Francisco offense, and -- surprise, surprise -- Alex Smith didn't throw a touchdown pass. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch (21-107-1 and 2-24-0) became the first player to notch a rushing touchdown against the 49ers this season.
· Oakland Raiders 16 | Kansas City Chiefs 13 (overtime) -- The Raiders (8-7) kept their playoff hopes alive while eliminating the Chiefs (6-9) from the postseason hunt. During the overtime session, Oakland's lightning-quick Darrius Heyward-Bey (4-70-0) outraced Kansas City safety Kendrick Lewis down the left sideline and caught a 53-yard rainbow from Carson Palmer (237-1-2), which set up Sebastian Janikowski's game-winning 36-yard field goal. Denarius Moore (4-94-1) and Michael Bush (23-70-0) were the other notable offensive contributors. Although the Chiefs let down after their emotional victory over the Green Bay Packers last week, Kyle Orton (300-1-2) logged his second straight solid outing as the Chiefs' starter, and his main target was Dwayne Bowe (6-80-1).
THE BEST OF THE REST:
· Cincinnati Bengals 23 | Arizona Cardinals 16 -- The playoff hopeful Bengals (9-6) kept their playoff hopes alive, surviving a 16-point fourth-quarter rally by the Cardinals (7-8). With 1:12 left in the contest, Arizona's Early Doucet stumbled and fell while what could have been the go-ahead touchdown pass from John Skelton (297-2-3) fell incomplete. For Cincinnati, Andy Dalton (154-2-0) tossed touchdown passes to...