All I wanted for Christmas was 14 NFL contests on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
And I got it, primarily since there was little or no danger of shooting my eye out.
The best part about it? The ability to write 10 things about what I saw while enjoying the 14 games-a-playing.
1. Playoff turnover trend continues.
While the final postseason field isn’t quite yet settled, it’s already obvious from the teams that made it -- and the teams that won’t -- that the trend of 50-percent playoff turnover most likely will once again hold true.
In the AFC, the Patriots, Steelers, and Ravens have made it back again to the playoffs. But the Colts, Chargers, and (most likely) the Jets will be left behind.
Replacing them will be the Texans and some combination of the Broncos, Raiders, Bengals, and Titans, with the Jets having a far-slimmer-than-Rex chance of dropping the turnover rate to 33 percent.
In the NFC, the Packers, Saints, and Falcons will be back. Dumped from contention are the Eagles, Seahawks, and Bears. Taking their places will be the Cowboys or the Giants, along with the Lions and 49ers.
Maybe we should quit calling this a trend. Maybe it’s now the rule, and any situations in which more than half of the playoff field makes it back the next year should be regarded as the exception.
For the NFL, it’s a great development, because it creates annual hope for the 20 teams that end up on the outside looking in. Every year, the fans of those franchises can take some solace in the notion that nearly a third of them will be playing for a Super Bowl title the following year.
Even the Bills and the Browns.
2. Steelers face tough decision on Ben.
It’s hard to gauge the overall impressiveness of the Steelers’ 27-0 win over the Rams, due to the quality of the competition. But the decision to sit Ben Roethlisberger and start veteran Charlie Batch at quarterback couldn’t have gone much better.
So why not do it again?
The Steelers, after all, are playing the lowly Browns. And while Pittsburgh’s arch-rivals from Cleveland would love nothing more than to keep the Steelers from winning the AFC North and clinching the No. 2 seed (even if it means seeing the even-more-hated Ravens pocket those prizes), the Steelers have the weaponry to handle the Browns with Batch or Dennis Dixon or even Terry Hanratty at quarterback.
On the other hand, getting a bye and securing home field advantage for at least the division round and possibly, if the Pats lose to the Bills in Week 17 or at home in the conference semifinals, the AFC title game carries with it tremendous value. If, in the end, the Steelers indeed are on a collision course to play the Ravens again, it’s important for that game to be played in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have beaten the Ravens twice in the last three postseasons.
The fact that the Bengals can get in with a win, which gives them even more motivation to beat the Ravens, should make the Steelers more willing to load up the cannon in order to beat the Browns. Thus, while it was reckless for the Steelers to go with Roethlisberger only 11 days after he suffered the sprained ankle, Sunday’s game invites a calculated risk that, if it works out, could generate a great reward.
If it doesn’t pay off, the Steelers will be in no worse shape, since they’re locked in as the fifth seed.
Unless, of course, Roethlisberger aggravates the ankle with as little as six days to get ready for a game in Denver or Oakland.
In the end, it won’t be an easy call. Maybe the answer will be to use Roethlisberger until the game against the Browns seems to be decided -- or until the scoreboard shows that the Ravens are handling the Bengals.
3. AFC playoff field is flawed.
Not that long ago, all the best teams resided in the AFC. Now, the once top-heavy conference has teams at the top that are littered with warts.
The Patriots, currently the top seed, possess a porous defense and not much of a running game. Last time I checked, those were two key components of any serious playoff run.
The Ravens seem to be the most dangerous team of the bunch, as long as they can put it all together. But they seem only to put it all together when playing good teams. Saturday’s dilly-dallying with the Browns shows that the Ravens could be ripe for an upset if/when a lesser franchise comes to town.
Not long ago, the Texans were the “it” team. Now, many of their fans want to add an “s” and an “h” to that description. With scant playoff experience on the roster, the Texans will need to make a quick adjustment when it’s time to play the big boys in the conference.
The Steelers have the tools to beat anyone, but they’re in danger of having to do it the hard way, with three hurdles to clear -- all of which most likely will come on the road -- before a earning a return trip to the Super Bowl.
The Broncos can beat anyone on any given day. As we saw in fairly dramatic fashion on Saturday, they can lose to anyone, too. Including a team that was riding a seven-game winning streak. Even if the clock is striking twelve on Tebow Time, it’s hard to see this team winning in Pittsburgh/Baltimore, New England, or even Houston.
Ditto for the Raiders, who have at times looked good enough to barely win and at other times bad enough to be blown off the field.
That means the team poised to pocket the last ticket to the party -- the Bengals -- could be the most dangerous. With a capable defense, a better-than-expected rookie quarterback, and a better-than-most rookie receiver, the team with the least to lose and the lowest expectations could string together one win after another, thanks to the deeply flawed field of candidates.
Of course, this could mean that the winner of the conference will end up being the sacrificial lambs for the Packers, Saints, or 49ers. Unless, of course, the Ravens avoid playing down to the competition in their own conference long enough to earn a crack at the best teams in the league.
4. Tough year for top two tailbacks.
Entering the 2011 football season, running backs in the NFL fell into two categories: (1) Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson; and (2) everyone else.
And the season started very well for both men, who took two very different paths to getting paid a lot of money. Johnson held out of training camp and the preseason, getting his big-money deal only days before the start of the season. Peterson happily entered the final season of his rookie contract without creating any overt drama, even though it privately was known he wouldn’t react well to being subjected to the franchise tag in 2012.
Once the games started, it became clear that the holdout hampered Johnson. Peterson performed well as usual, but he was underutilized at times by a Vikings team that kept blowing second-half leads.
Now that Peterson has suffered a serious knee injury, which seemed inevitable given his hard-charging running style, both men have a long way to go to prove that they remain the best tailbacks in the game. Johnson needs to rediscover the explosiveness that allowed him to slide through a crease and hit the nitrous button; Peterson needs to get healthy.
Their experiences demonstrate that, unlike the quarterback position, which produces a tight nucleus of elite players who remain at that level for years, the best running backs have become a revolving door, with each year producing new guys who’ll enter the next season at the top of the league -- and who’ll have only a limited window to remain there.
5. Cruz control in New York.
In his team’s first game of the 2010 preseason, undrafted rookie receiver Victor Cruz created a major stir for the Giants, with a performance that featured 145 yards and three touchdowns against the Jets in their annual exhibition. But then the regular season started, and Cruz disappeared from view, making zero receptions before suffering a season-ending injury.
The 2011 campaign began far more inconspicuously for Cruz, with no touchdowns in the preseason and no receptions in the regular-season opener. In Week Two, Cruz had only two catches for 17 yards.
Then came the explosion. In the past 13 games, Cruz has generated 1,341 receiving yards. Combined with the paltry 51 feet from the first eighth of the season, Cruz now has become the single-season receiving yardage leader in the storied history of the Giants franchise.
And the breaking of Amani Toomers’ record came in perhaps the biggest regular-season game the Giants have had in years -- a cross-town/cross-stadium rivalry with the loud-mouthed Jets, in which Cruz’s nine-yard catch and 90-yard run turned the tide of a game in which the “home” team in Green seemed to be overpowering the team that had won only one of six games.
As a result, Cruz needs to be taken seriously as one of the best young receivers in the game. It’s a great story for a New Jersey kid who simply wanted to play in the NFL. Cruz, through two NFL seasons, is on track not just to play but to dominate.
6. Heaping helping of humble pie for the Ryans.
It’ll be interesting to see the relationship between the outcome of the 2011 regular season and the extent to which the Ryan twins keep talking. For Rex, the Jets head coach, he had a chance to put up or shut up against the Giants. Rex didn’t put up; now we’ll see whether he shuts up.
For Rob, the Cowboys defensive coordinator, another ugly loss to the Eagles and a looming winner-take-all game against the team that just beat Rex should induce caution and, relatively speaking, silence.
But guys who like to talk tend to find ways to keep talking. Even after a season in which the Eagles scored a total of 99 points against the Ryans in three games, and with both the Jets and Cowboys facing a strong possibility of no postseason appearance for either team, it’s unlikely that they’ll change.
They can’t change; they are who they are, which is the source of their appeal to the men who play for them. And as long as their players respond well to Rex and Rob, they’ll have a place in the league.
Besides, there’s still a chance -- slim as it may be -- that both men will extend their seasons past January 1. For Rob, it’s a simple win-and-in proposition. For Rex, the odds are longer, but it’s no huge stretch to think that the Jets will beat the Dolphins, the Ravens will beat the Bengals, the Texans will beat the Titans, and the Raiders or the Broncos will lose to the Chargers or the Chiefs, respectively.
If that all happens, Rex will find a way to quickly and completely digest his Christmas Eve portion of humble pie. And now that the Jets have bottomed out for the third time this year, the boomerang effect could carry them deep into that deeply flawed AFC playoff field.
7. It’ll be hard to keep Raheem.
The Buccaneers nearly made it to the postseason in 2010. But for a surprising (at the time) home loss to the Lions, the 10-6 Bucs would have claimed the last seat at the NFC table, bouncing to the curb the eventual Super Bowl champions.
This year, expectations were higher, even though they were tempered by the reality that the Bucs compete with the Falcons and Saints in the NFC South. A 4-2 start to the season, including wins over said Falcons and Saints, created a sense that the “yungry” team from Tampa could take over the division.
And then the bottom dropped out.
Nine straight losses later, including two to a Carolina team that won only two total games a year ago, the Bucs have clinched the basement. With coach Raheem Morris having only one year left on his contract and receiving no public or (by all appearances) private assurances that he’ll be back in 2012, it’s safe to assume that ownership will move on.
With the Jon Gruden buyout completed and Morris being paid nowhere near the top of the coaching food chain, it’ll be no problem to pay him not to coach the team in 2011. And with the Bucs on track to finish the year with as many consecutive losses as total victories a year ago, it’ll be virtually impossible for a team that struggles to sell tickets to bring Raheem back.
But then who will they hire to run the team? The up-and-coming coordinator who happens to be the younger brother of the guy the Bucs fired three years ago? Another young assistant coach with low recognition, low salary demands, and, in turn, a limited ability to put butts in seats?
Or will the Glazer family decide to spend some of the money that hasn’t been devoted to player costs over the past several years on a big-name coach whose mere presence will help market the team?
We’ll all find out the answer soon. The end result could result in even more empty seats next year at Raymond James Stadium.
8. Lions peaking at the right time, but will it matter?
After the Lions slumped from 5-0 to 7-5, serious questions hovered regarding the team’s true ability to compete. The loss of running back Jahvid Best to a season-ending concussion and the decision of opposing defenses to blanket receiver Calvin Johnson took the sting out of the offense. The Ndamukong Suh imbroglio created a torrent of negative publicity, and a sense that the Lions simply weren’t ready to compete at the highest levels of the league.
Three straight wins in a row later, the Lions have made it to the postseason for the first time since 1999, and they’re being regarded as a serious threat to make some major noise when the playoffs start.
But will they? Though Saturday’s thumping of the Chargers arguably was the most impressive victory of the season, the Lions barely held on to beat a bad Vikings team and found a way to steal a road win over the up-and-down Raiders.
It’s entirely possible that the bolt of momentum coming from the knockout blow that the Lions administered to the Chargers will help the Lions win a game or two, or maybe more, when it counts the most. Ultimately, the Lions’ fate could be influenced heavily by whether they enter the playoffs as the No. 5 or No. 6 seed.
If they can hold off the Falcons for the primary wild-card spot in the NFC, the Lions will play at Dallas (where the Lions won during the season) or New York (where the Giants have a hard time holding serve, at least when they’re not the visiting team). But if the Lions slide into the sixth spot, Detroit will have to return to New Orleans, where they lost badly in early December.
The Saints seem to be unbeatable in the Superdome. Perhaps the Lions could find a way to beat them there, but the Lions would surely prefer not to be forced to try.
And that creates an interesting dilemma for the Packers next week. With the top seed clinched, should Green Bay rest their starters for the postseason, or should they do everything they can to force the Lions’ postseason tour to commence with the possibility of inevitable failure in New Orleans?
9. Eventual Super Bowl teams dodged a bullet.
In less than a month, we’ll know the identities of the teams who’ll qualify for the biggest event in all of sport. Whoever makes it should look back to Week 16, and breathe a deep sigh of relief. (Not to be confused with the many other types of sighs.)
On Christmas Eve, two of the most potentially disruptive teams summarily were erased from postseason contention, when the Chargers saw their three-game winning streak end in Detroit and when the Eagles saw their own three-game run rendered irrelevant by the Giants’ win over the Jets.
Either team could have wreaked major havoc in January. Just as the Packers barely made it to the playoffs as the NFC’s sixth seed in 2010 and then won the whole thing, the Eagles and Chargers could have parlayed late-season surges into postseason pillaging.
Now, none of the other playoff teams have to worry about the two teams who were the hottest in the league entering Week 16. The Eagles have gotten even hotter, and the Packers, 49ers, and Saints should be thrilled that the Eagles won’t get a chance to extend that vibe beyond Sunday.
10. The bloom is off the Tebow.
Eight days ago, Tim Tebow had reached the pinnacle of pro football popularity and/or notoriety. The Broncos quarterback had become the biggest name in football, joining only a small handful of football players who can cross over into major mainstream consciousness.
Today, with a pair of ugly losses in which Tebow and the Broncos offense started strong but ultimately collapsed, the national buzz has diminished, significantly. Though Tebow can get it back by leading the Broncos to a win over the Chiefs and former Denver starter Kyle Orton, the past two weekends prove that the flavor of the month sometimes is only the flavor of the week.
At some point, Tebowmania likely will return to the top of the non-sports news cycle. Also, he remains the hottest thing going in Denver.
Still, his inability to deliver further heroics at home against the Patriots or to stay within 20 points of a bad Buffalo team on Christmas Eve has served as a stark reminder that the latest big name in sports is at any given time only a couple of bad games away from again becoming just another face in the crowd.