NFL Week 16 in Review

CHRIS PUMMER: Disappointing teams have been cleaning house early this season. The 49ers got started by making Mike Singletary the fourth coach dismissed before the end of the regular season.

When the pink slips get handed out is less interesting to me than the sheer volume of them we’ll likely see once the season does end after next weekend. By my count there’s at least 10 other coaches where it would be no surprise if they were fired. In order of likelihood:

1. John Fox (Carolina)
2. Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati)
3. Gary Kubiak (Houston)
4. Jack Del Rio (Jacksonville)
5. Eric Mangini (Cleveland)
6. Norv Turner (San Diego)
7. Tom Cable (Oakland)
8. Tom Coughlin (NY Giants)
9. Jeff Fisher (Titans)
10. Ken Wisenhunt

Yes, you are reading this correctly. I think Tom Cable has more job security than Norv Turner or Jack Del Rio. There might be a sizable gap between Cable and Coughlin. And then another between Coughlin and Fisher. Wisenhunt probably isn’t going anywhere after taking the team to a Super Bowl just a couple years ago. But guys who lose there just don’t get as much slack as you’d think.

I don’t think there will be much measurable surprise if any of these guys have to walk the plank, except maybe Fisher. You could maybe add Mike Shanahan, with the quarterback mess he’s created in Washington. But the money left on his contract is probably too rich even for Redskins owner Dan Snyder to swallow after just one year.

Anyway, more details in the game recaps:

Steelers 27, Panthers 3
: John Fox was rumored to be in line to get the boot from Carolina (2-13) before the end of last season, and it was something of an upset that he returned. The reason is probably because the Panthers ownership wanted to wait until the issue of labor unrest was settled to add someone to the payroll. Fox was brought back with just the one year left on his contract. A new guy would have surely required a commitment that lasted through a potential lockout.

The result is not only a lame-duck coach in Fox, but a team that’s also spent a year in a strange, lame-duck limbo status. Maybe a few role players have been developed for future seasons, but the huge question of who will play under center is unanswered. Matt Moore hasn’t been healthy enough to prove he can do the job, while Jimmy Clausen has been healthy enough to prove he absolutely can’t.

The Panthers could have made much more progress if they’d just ponied up to bring a new regime to town. Lockout or no, Carolina is probably looking at another couple rebuilding years once play resumes with a new season. That has to be deeply disappointing for fans.

The Steelers (11-4) are winning their traditional way. Lots of defense and a just-enough offense that can score in the clutch. They’ll win the AFC North over the Ravens if they take care of business at Cleveland next week.

ALEX PREWITT: Watched this Thursday night game on my uncle’s big flatscreen TV in his man-cave in California. By halftime, I almost wanted to go upstairs and bake cookies with the rest of my family. Almost.

Cardinals 27, Cowboys 26
: Jason Garrett is already an interim boss in Dallas (5-10), but this isn’t what he wanted to happen during what’s really an extended job interview. Three turnovers doomed the Cowboys, who were behind early, rallied, but lost on a last-second kick. Everyone seems in agreement that the talent is there for Dallas to be a winner. Sure, it’s hard to motivate players when the playoffs were a long-ago dream that died in October. But if Dallas owner Jerry Jones is on the fence about handing his team to Garrett, this kind of continuation of the sloppy play seen under previous coach Wade Phillips probably pushes him in the other direction.

The Cardinals have never really solved the long-term QB problem since Jake Plummer left. Yes, Kurt Warner was great for three seasons, but don’t forget that Arizona essentially lucked into him, scooping him up off the scrap pile to back up one-time future franchise QB Matt Leinart. How the position is addressed is the biggest issue for Wisenhunt and crew, and may determine how fast the rest of their goodwill from a Super Bowl appearances is sapped.

ALEX PREWITT: While the Cowboys essentially took a seat Haynesworth-style for Wade Phillips, they actually seem to be responding to Garrett. With Philadelphia locked into the No. 3 seed in the NFC, Week 17 will give Dallas a chance to get that much-needed sixth win and (most likely) move into a tie for last in the NFC East. Even though this sloppy play has continued, it’s gotten substantially better and, even more amazingly, Dallas actually won two road games against Indianapolis and New York.

Patriots 34, Bills 3
Business as usual for the Patriots (13-2), who will be the top seed in the AFC. Business as usual for the Bills (4-11).

ALEX PREWITT: Honestly, I don’t see the Patriots stumbling any time soon. They’ve clinched home-field advantage and will likely rest their starters for most of the Dolphins game on Sunday, but should still win given that it’s at home on a probably still-snow-blanketedĀ Gillette. Tom Brady’s been way too good recently for any team to have a legitimate shot at winning on the road come playoff time. Realistically, the only thing standing in New England’s way is itself.

Bears 38, Jets 34
CHRIS PUMMER: The LaDainian Tomlinson half of the Jets’ RB platoon seems be wearing out, which means the Shonn Greene half must pick up the slack if New York (10-5) doesn’t want to be one-and-done on Wild Card weekend.

What the Jets let the Bears (11-4) do running the ball should be more troubling for New York fans. Bears RB Matt Forte had one of his better games this season, despite the Jets loading up at the line at times. Forte wasn’t a beast, but he did more than enough to keep the Jets honest, and off of QB Jay Cutler, who was only hit four times and sacked twice.

Chicago is still susceptible to teams with a good pass rush capable of getting Cutler out of his game. Going against a poor Bears offensive line, the Jets should have been able to do this.

ALEX PREWITT: That sound you hear is the Jets backing into the playoffs. The win over Pittsburgh seemed to be a defiant response to the recent off-the-field controversy, but then Matt Forte went and had his most productive day since a Week 5 win over Carolina. So, for all intents and purposes, this was the underachieving Forte’s best game of the season. The Wild Card is already clinched, so Week 17 against Buffalo doesn’t mean anything. However, look for Ryan to use it as a much-needed tune-up to avoid a total collapse before the postseason.

Ravens 20, Browns 10
Browns honcho Mike Holmgren has been quiet lately, and that silence probably isn’t the vote of confidence Cleveland coach Eric Mangini is looking for. Unlike the Panthers, the Browns (5-10) have made some good strides. Running back Peyton Hillis has been a great pickup, and rookie QB Colt McCoy has developed enough to make you think the Browns have something to work with at the skill positions. Even disappointing wide receiver Brian Robiskie has looked better this year.

Five wins is still only five wins, though a win against the Steelers next week would be a sixth, and maybe change the landscape a little by giving Mangini another quality victory. Still, Mangini’s best shot at keeping his job might be for Holmgren to decide he wants the San Francisco job instead of installing himself in Cleveland.

ALEX PREWITT: Try and guess the top three AFC teams in terms of points allowed. Pittsburgh was first; that was a gimme. Baltimore second; OK, too easy. Third? How about the Cleveland Browns. Wins at New Orleans and versus New England sandwiched a bye week, which indicates, if nothing else, the potential this team has if the Browns stay totally focused. But for every impressive victory, there’s also the back-to-back losses to Buffalo and Cincinnati.

Still, there’s plenty of hope for the future. Their two losses to Baltimore came by seven and 10 points, and they fell by two to Kansas City. The loss to the Jets came by six in overtime, while they lost to the Jaguars by four the ensuing week. Colt McCoy has shown more than enough to demonstrate the potential for a stronger sophomore campaign, and Peyton Hillis hasn’t gotten nearly enough carries to warrant talk of slowing down in 2011. Maybe they can pick up a solid WR in the draft like A.J. Green or Julio Jones (Hillis and TE Ben Watson have 44 percent of the team’s receptions) and strengthen the defensive line (26th in the league in opponents’ rushing yards), but the key pieces are definitely in place.

Chiefs 34, Titans 14
The Chiefs (10-5) clinch the AFC West and probably aren’t getting as much credit as they deserve. Part of the story is how the Chargers blew it with a lot of bad losses, but Kansas City has put together the league’s top rushing attack. The lack of passing yards shouldn’t be a concern because despite a thin receiving corps, Dwayne Bowe is still a playmaker. And Matt Cassel is capable of exploiting other teams with the tools he has.

The Titans (6-9) are still struggling to the finish line, and it might just cost a good coach in Jeff Fisher his job. This is Fisher’s 16th season, and he’s survived worse campaigns. I happen to think the Oilers/Titans have been better off with the continuity Fisher’s given them. Some teams fall into the trap of firing a coach after a down season or two, then rebuilding, making modest progress, the faltering and starting over again without ever making the playoffs. Fisher has always been a foundation for his franchise, giving them a very good coach who makes good decisions. Firing him because injuries sabotaged expectations this year would be a mistake.

Still, 16 years is a very, very long time in the NFL. And with Fisher only making the playoffs twice in the last seven seasons, maybe ownership in Tennessee feels like it’s time to change.

Rams 25, 49ers 17
If quarterbacks were proud of earning the coach-killer label, Alex Smith could puff his chest while claiming two skins on his wall. Mike Nolan was shown the door in part because of the top-overall draft pick’s poor play. Now Mike Singletary has been dismissed.

To be fair to Smith, there should have been no expectation of him being a franchise-steering player by the time Singletary took over. Singletary is the victim of his own lack of experience, his failure to surround himself with quality assistants and his inability to simply pick a QB and stick with him.

Maybe riding the hot hand under center is what Singletary had to do in a win-now-or-else situation like he was facing with San Francisco owner Jed York. Or maybe it was just because he was surrounded by bad options. Still, nobody ever wins with a game of musical chairs going on at quarterback.

The Rams (7-8) have their franchise QB in Sam Bradford, and despite whatever other flaws this team, and division have, they’ll be playing for a playoff spot against the Seahawks next week with the winner taking the NFC West. Seattle is struggling badly, and with Matt Hasselbeck being pulled, are maybe facing a QB dilemma of their won. That’s why I’m getting comfortable thinking that St. Louis will go to Seattle next week and win.

Lions 34, Dolphins 27
CHRIS PUMMER: I suppose Tony Sparano should have been on the list of coaches who could be fired. The Dolphins (7-8) are struggling with the same problem they’ve had all season, which is that they don’t have a credible QB option. Chad Henne has been OK. But he has for sure not been a net positive for the team, which has been solid in most other areas.

The Lions (5-10) continue to make good progress, even if their franchise QB was shut down for the season. If Matt Stafford can come back studied and ready to hit the ground running, Detroit will be dangerous next season. I’m not ready to call them a dark horse for a playoff spot. That probably depends more on what their division rivals in the NFC North bring back next year.

Redskins 20, Jaguars 17 (OT)
Jack Del Rio’s tenure in Jacksonville (8-7) can probably best be described as “meh.” He’s done better than his AFC South counterparts in Houston, about as well as Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, but has mostly stood behind the Colts in the things that matter. Like winning and going to the playoffs.

“Meh” might not be good enough as the Jaguars are struggling to fill seats, and Jacksonville never seemed like a team capable of living up to lofty expectations this year. It’d be a shame if that costs Del Rio his job, but sometimes that’s just where the ax lands. At least when it’s not hitting a punter in the leg.

If you wonder why Rex Grossman will have a job in the NFL for at least the next five years, you just have to survey the QB landscape for most teams. If he’s not an upgrade for maybe a quarter of teams out there, he at least brings more tantalizing potential. He didn’t even kill the Redskins (6-9) with turnovers this week.

This is obviously a position where Mike Shanahan will have to search for options next season, though he might have to admit that it’d be easier to upgrade other parts of his offense and stick with Sexy Rexy, hoping the supporting crew can lift him.

And yea, McNabb is still gone.

ALEX PREWITT: I can’t imagine Shanahan being dismissed in the near future; unlike recent highly touted coaches brought in by Dan Snyder (read: Steve Spurrier; Jim Zorn), Mike Shanahan has a track record of success. Now, however, we’re forced to question whether the success with the Broncos occurred because of Shanahan, or whether John Elway and Terrell Davis could have carried Denver to a Super Bowl, regardless of the coach.

The easy answer to the former proposition is yes. Mike Shanahan is a good coach and he’s a proven winner in an unstable league. But in light of the personnel issues — the (somewhat justified) handling of the Albert Haynesworth situation and the (totally egregious) mishandling of the Donovan McNabb situation — we have to wonder about Shanahan’s abilities to connect with his players. Half of the Skins’ wins have come in overtime. The other three have come by a combined 14 points. The running game is a patchwork mess of never-beens — a situation that Shanahan mined for gold in Denver — that ranks 29th in the league, and the pass defense is next-to-last.

All I can say is that I’m thankful Donovan McNabb will get out while he still can.

Broncos 24, Texans 23
Another black eye for Gary Kubiak, who is probably on his way out in Houston (5-10). This kind of season would have been crushing, even if it weren’t for a good start that may have raised expectations. The defense falters while the offense is good. The opposite of what his predecessor Dom Capers did. This makes me wonder what kind of hire the Texans will make next, and if it wouldn’t just be better to see if you could bring in a defensive guru to handle that part of the team.

ALEX PREWITT: The Texans are the Memphis Grizzlies of the NFL — all the offense but none of the defense. Maybe I say that because I’m a Grizzlies fan and have been tortured with the fact that Memphis scores 99.7 points per game and gives up 99.8. Or maybe the comparison is actually true. Andre Johnson is still one of the best receivers in the league, and Arian Foster will end the season with just over 300 carries. All that’s left is a few fixes on the defensive end, and the Texans suddenly turn into a 10-win team.

Then again, I thought drafting Mario Williams would help.

Colts 31, Raiders 26
I’m going to dare to say that Tom Cable has done a good job with the Raiders (7-8) this season. This year they were in the playoff race as deep into a season as they’ve been since their exiled coach Jon Gruden detonated a laugh bomb against them in the Super Bowl against Tampa Bay — jeez, near a decade ago.

That might be enough to keep Cable on the job, as the Raider still lack for a whole lot of talent. That’s been a problem that’s need addressed since the midpoint of 2003.

The Colts (9-6) look down, and like they’ll get blown up in the first round of the playoffs.

ALEX PREWITT: No way the Colts get blown up in the first round of the playoffs. As it stands right now, Peyton Manning and co. will host Baltimore for the 4v5 matchup in the opening weekend, a team Manning is 6-2 against in his career. Maybe the Ravens defense will be enough to hold off tumbling Indianapolis, but I think it’s a stretch to say that Baltimore will roll into the RCA Dome and obliterate a team the Ravens have never beaten on the road.

Packers 45, Giants 17
The Packers (9-6) still look like a good and dangerous team that without injuries and some bad luck would have left the Bears in their rear view mirror in the NFC North. Special teams and lack of a running game are still a pair of Achilles heels for Green Bay, though Brandon Jacobs does what he can on the ground. Losing Ryan Grant early in the year was tough because you can’t always dig up a great replacement midseason.

Tom Coughlin is the kind of hard-ass coach who wears out welcomes. Coughlin’s welcome might be wearing really thin right now with the Giants (9-6), who probably expected more out of this year.

Buccaneers 38, Seahawks 15
The Buccanners (9-6) haveĀ  a good season to their credit, though they’ll need a win against the Saints next week and some help to get into the playoffs.

The Seahawks (6-9) need help, too. They face the Rams, and the way Seattle has played, losing seven of nine, the Seahawks might need St. Louis to beat itself.

Saints 17, Falcons 14
The Falcons (12-3) really didn’t have as much to play for, but showed they’re not invincible. The NFC playoffs will be wide open, and the Saints (11-4) showed that they’re still very, very dangerous.

ALEX PREWITT: Drew Brees still hasn’t solved his interception problems — his two fourth-quarter picks nearly threw the Saints out of the game — but his 90-yard, game-winning drive was just enough to beat Atlanta on the road. The Falcons managed only 215 yards of total offense, but will likely get a first-round bye to figure things out and can clinch home field at home against Carolina. OK, so they’ve basically clinched home field.

Vikings 24, Eagles 14
The self-anointed MVP didn’t exactly play like one as the Eagles (10-5) blew a chance to claim a playoff bye. The Vikings (6-9) maybe make a case for Leslie Frazier taking over as head coach full time next year.

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