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.