We’re one game short of 14 per team, and while we know plenty of things about where this season is heading, Week 15 has been a reminder of just how dramatically perceptions can change.
But that’s basically the point of the first of the 10 PFT takes from the Sunday that was.
So it’s time to shut up long enough to insert the heading for the first entry on the list.
1. What a difference a week makes.
Regardless of the number of games that have been played, one week can change so much about the manner in which we collectively perceive the state of the NFL. And that’s precisely what happened on Sunday (and Saturday).
The Packers suddenly seem something less than invincible, giving the playoffs the same “anything can happen” feel that produced the Steelers as champions in 2005, the Giants as Patriots-slayers in 2007, the Cardinals as Super Bowl participants in 2008, and the Packers as the No. 6 to No. 1 title-winners in 2010.
With the Ravens and Jets and Broncos and Texans and Raiders and Broncos and Giants and Bears and Packers losing and with the Patriots and Chargers and Cowboys and Lions and Saints and Eagles winning, there’s a renewed sense that anyone who gets a ticket to the playoff party can run the table.
Most significant was the Packers’ loss at Arrowhead Stadium. With an offensive line struggling through injuries and the Chiefs supplying a blueprint for beating them, it’s no longer automatic that the Packers will win two games at Lambeau Field and another one in Indianapolis.
2. Battle for New York has higher stakes than ever.
With the Jets and Giants both losing on Sunday, their Christmas Eve get-together has something more than bragging rights hanging in the balance. Both teams need to win the game in order to get to the postseason.
If that -- and the possibility of coach Tom Coughlin not returning in 2012 -- isn’t enough incentive for the Giants to snap out of a 1-5 funk, they’ll be able to consider the words of Jets coach Rex Ryan from his book, Play Like You Mean It.
“We are the better team,” Ryan wrote. “We’re the big brother. People might say they are the big, bad Giants, but we are not the same old Jets. . . .
“To me, it seems clear that right now we are the better team and we are going to remain the better team for the next 10 years. Whether you like it or not, those are the facts, and that’s what going to happen. I know it’s going to happen because our style of football is different. We are going to take over the town whether the Giants like it or not, so those fans on the fence that like both teams are going to be Jets fans in the end. The truth is, if I am going to watch one game, I am going to see the Jets, without a doubt. We are better.”
Regardless of which team truly is better, each team had better win in order to keep the shot at a Super Bowl alive.
It would be fitting, then, if they play this one to a tie.
3. Saints, Brees play contract chicken.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees won’t simply break the single-season passing yardage record. He’ll obliterate it.
Making the accomplishment even more impressive is the longevity of the high-water mark that Dan Marino set, way back in 1984. That year, Marino became the first 5,000-yard passer in NFL history, thanks in large part to a gradual modification of the offensive rules, which encouraged teams to throw. Marino’s feat came just a few years after Dan Fouts of the Chargers set a new single-season passing yardage record in each of three straight seasons.
Brees’ accomplishment comes only three years after he came within 15 yards of the record, and it caps a run with the Saints in which his six years in New Orleans all will fall within the top 40 single-season passing performances of all time. From 4,418 yards in 2006 to 4,423 in 2007 to 5,069 in 2008 to 4,388 in 2009 to 4,620 in 2010 to 4,780 and counting in 2011, Brees has put together the most prolific six consecutive seasons the league may ever see.
So why can’t the Saints see that he should be paid among the very best quarterbacks in the league? Like Peyton Manning, Brees has one Super Bowl win. Unlike Manning and Tom Brady, Brees can move quickly when he needs to. Younger than both of the men who were regarded as the best in the game before Manning’s neck situation became a season-long curse (and before the full emergence of Aaron Rodgers), Brees has shown that he belongs on the top rung of the salary ladder.
Still, player and team are destined for an offseason game of chicken, in which the Saints will bank on Brees not wanting to be away from his teammates, and Brees will bank on his teammates understanding that the organization is trying to take advantage of Brees’ desire to not be away from them. Lost in this battle of wills, wallets, and egos that could, but likely won’t, get out of control is that both sides lose if Brees isn’t fully engaged with the franchise throughout the offseason.
As a result, they need to work it out -- or next year Brees may not be adding quite as much to his Hall of Fame credentials.
4. Tarvaris turning around the Seahawks.
When the Seahawks opted not to pick a rookie quarterback in the draft and to sign Tarvaris Jackson to a short-term deal in late July, many assumed that Pete Carroll and John Schneider would simply be waiting for 2012, at which time Matt Barkley (or maybe even Andrew Luck) could be brought to town.
But something happened on the way to Tarvaris Jackson becoming irrelevant. He has become very relevant, playing through a pectoral injury that likely will require offseason surgery and pushing the team to five wins in six games, including victories over the Ravens and Eagles at home -- and a thrashing of the Bears at Soldier Field.
His total numbers aren’t stellar. In the last three games, however, Jackson has posted passer ratings of 137.0, 96.4, and 94.4 in a 31-14 win over Philly, a 30-13 win over the Rams, and a 38-14 win over the Bears.
Vikings fans would point out that Jackson authored stretches like that at times in Minnesota, before inevitably laying the proverbial egg. (Hard-working chickens everywhere still don’t understand why that’s a bad thing.) With a visit from the 49ers coming up on Saturday, Jackson can put the rest of the league on notice that he finally has become consistent -- and that he doesn’t plan to step aside in 2012 for a first-round pick. If the Seahawks end up 9-7 (two games better than their division-winning performance of a year ago), Jackson may not have to worry about eventually carry a clipboard for a hot-shot rookie.
5. Don’t dream (team) it’s over.
As a society, we love to build people up and then tear them down and then root for them to redeem themselves. In Philadelphia, the story of the 2011 Eagles now looks a lot like the broader story of their starting quarterback’s career.
Handed the Lombardi Trophy in August, the Eagles bottomed out before finding a way out of the woods with a 45-19 destruction of the Jets. Now, with a fairly simple combination of outcomes far less crazy than others we’ve seen connect over the years, the Eagles could still steal the NFC East crown.
cut a hole in a box beat the Cowboys on Christmas Eve. Two, hope the Jets beat the Giants. Three, beat the Redskins on New Year’s Day. Four, hope the Giants beat the Cowboys.
Plenty of people will be shocked if that happens, but they shouldn’t be. The Dream Team remains alive, and if they get a ticket to the playoff party, anything can happen.
If it does happen, Mike Vick deserves plenty of credit. After three weeks of the team declining to let him play after getting a painkilling injection due to concerns about his effectiveness, Vick decided that he would do whatever needed to be done to perform. He has taken the shots, and he has been effective enough to win two in a row.
6. Pats kept Ochocinco for a reason.
Through weeks of poor performances and underachievement, why did Bill Belichick not cut receiver Chad Ochocinco?
The easy explanation is that Belichick didn’t want to admit that he committed a huge bungle by giving the former Bengal a $6 million signing bonus upon renegotiating and extending his contract. The truth may be more complex than that.
I’ve spent the last 12 hours trying to think of a less nerdy metaphor for the ongoing presence of Ochocinco on the Patriots’ roster. But I couldn’t. So here goes.
In the first Lord of the Rings movie, Gandalf explains to Frodo that Frodo shouldn’t kill Gollum because Gollum still may have a role in the broader task of trying to destroy the ring that they spent like 12 hours of film trying to destroy. Without spoiling the outcome for any of the 14 people who haven’t seen the trilogy, Gollum indeed plays an important role.
Ochocinco could, too, for the 2011 Patriots. He finally scored a touchdown in Week 15, and as defenses pay more and more attention to the likes of Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, the Pats will need to unleash Ochocinco in the postseason.
None of this means that Chad will be biting the Super Bowl ring off Aaron Rodgers’ hand, but Belichick’s decision to keep Chad around could be finally paying dividends, when it matters most.
7. MVP moves closer to being up for grabs.
Speaking of Aaron Rodgers, Sunday’s upside-down day of action gives his candidacy for MVP less of a slam-dunk feel. With Drew Brees threatening to best the Marino record by 10 percent and Tom Brady churning out wins for a defense held together by baked yarn and old glue, others could take a chunk out of Rodgers’ share of the 50 Associated Press votes.
Throw in the random ballots that inevitably will be cast for men like Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow, and Rodgers could end up not winning the thing.
Much of the outcome depends on what happens the next two weeks. If Brees finishes with 5,500 yards and the No. 2 seed or if the Pats pull into the station at 13-3 with the No. 1 seed, either Brees or Brady could emerge as the winner -- especially if the Packers can’t overcome a sudden rash of injuries along the offensive line.
8. Coach of the Year becomes even more wide open.
Green Bay’s loss on Sunday also derails the inevitable anointing of Mike McCarthy as coach of the year. If the Packers had followed Super Bowl XLV win with a 16-0 regular season, the award surely would have gone to McCarthy. Now, its final destination is as unknown as the eventual winner of the Super Bowl XLVI.
Jim Harbaugh emerged as the early no-brainer, but his team seems to be slumping. Gary Kubiak’s Texans have overcome obstacle after obstacle, but they stumbled badly on Sunday without defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, which tends to undermine Kubiak’s overall influence -- but also underscores the wisdom of Kubiak’s decision to hire Wade.
A wide variety of others could pick up votes, based on how the season ends. Marvin Lewis merits consideration if the Bengals make it to the postseason. Ditto for John Fox and the Broncos. And Hue Jackson and the Raiders. And Sean Payton and the Saints, given that Payton has overcome a serious leg injury to push his team toward a bye.
With the Packers losing, it could be one of the closest votes we’ve ever seen -- and with only 50 total votes there’s an outside chance of a three-way or four-way tie.
9. Romeo the good cop has a good chance at keeping the job.
Last year in Minnesota, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier served as the nice-guy voice of reason under an abrasive and not-so-likable head coach. This year in Kansas City, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has played a similar role for the Chiefs.
And so it’s no surprise then that the Chiefs have responded well to Crennel as the interim head coach, just as the Vikings did with Frazier. With the players grateful for the role that Crennel, like Frazier, played under the prior regime and hopeful that Crennel, like Frazier, will stick around for fear of the arrival of another potential pain in the butt, the Chiefs pulled off an upset for the ages in Crennel’s first game.
If the Chiefs can keep winning -- and if the four teams in the AFC West finish 8-8, the Chiefs will win the division -- G.M. Scott Pioli will have little choice but to keep Crennel, since the outcry from within the locker room and beyond will be too loud to ignore.
But the rest of the story in Minnesota has, so far, not been a good one. Sometimes, it takes a bad cop to be successful. Yes, the Vikings players love Leslie Frazier. But the team is 2-12 this year, and only two losses away from the worst season in franchise history. Pioli needs to carefully consider that factor before surrendering to the mob.
10. Gaither could gather some green.
Coach Norv Turner isn’t the only guy in San Diego with a strong incentive to see the team get to the playoffs. If that happens, and if in turn Turner and G.M. A.J. Smith stick around, they’ll likely show plenty of gratitude to left tackle Jared Gaither.
Gaither sulked his way out of Baltimore after being moved to right tackle in deference to Michael Oher, and a false-start penalty in a key moment of a Sunday night game against the Steelers got Gaither run out of Kansas City.
But with three straight solid starts in San Diego, including a Sunday night game in which he held Terrell Suggs without a sack, Gaither could be getting himself in line for the payday that never came in Baltimore.
Even if the Chargers don’t make it to the postseason, Gaither’s stretch run will prompt someone to pay him to try to do in 2012 what he’s done for the Chargers in 2011.