North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

NFL Notebook, Week 15 – Was it a miracle in the Meadowlands?

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The AFC East has been, without a doubt, the best division in football this year, perhaps this decade. For most of the season, all four teams were thick in the race, although on Sunday one was officially eliminated.

The New York Jets, led by a resurgent Brett Farve, needed a win on Sunday about as much as they ever had, as there was a three-way tie for first between them, the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins.

And with the Patriots playing a limp Oakland team and Miami playing an underwhelming San Francisco 49ers, the Jets really needed a win, just to keep pace.

They got it, but just barely.

Before we get to that, we should look at their opening drive. Football played to it’s finest by the men in green. A quick pass to the sideline, for a first down. Draw runs up the middle, for gains of four or five. Farve’s passing was crisp and sharp and opened up the secondary early on, giving Leon Washington and Thomas Jones space to run.

Their opening drive was 72 yards in just over three minutes. Their second drive was 70 yards in eight plays, taking only four minutes. Before the first ended, before Buffalo knew what hit them, it was 14-3.

Which isn’t to say the Bills were limp, either. In between those two scores, Buffalo ate up the clock on a four minute drive of their own, getting a field goal.

What does that mean? Simple: a first quarter without a punt, without a turnover. Both sides were playing for their playoff lives – if Buffalo lost, they were officially out of the playoffs. Thusly, they played like their season depended on it: two quick majors in the second and they led 17-14, before the Jets retook the lead on a Leon Washington score late in the half.

So, early indications were for a shootout, the kind of game the Jets are suited for: they have a better quarterback and more weapons downfield to throw to then the Bills.

But throughout the second half, both defences settled down, and the match got quieter for most of the half. After starting the game five-for-seven, Farve would finish .

So in a game where the defence clamped down, it seems fitting that it would win the game: with the Bills leading 27-24, JP Losman dropped back to pass on a second and five, was sacked at his own 16, fumbled, with the ball falling into the hands of Ellis, who ran it home for the game-winning major.

Not exactly how you plan to beat a six win team, sure, but the Jets will take what they can: both the Patriots and Dolphins won too: nothing was really settled in the AFC East, at least not yet. Had Losman held on the ball, the Jets season could well have ended.

Still, the Jets showed they are a sharp team, at least sometimes. They can stretch a decent defence thin early on and get on the board quickly: come playoff time, that will count.

But their defence was, for most of the game, subpar. Against a lackluster Buffalo team, who started a backup quartberback, they had a hell of a time stopping the run. While Losman was picked off three times, none of those came in the first half, when the Bills scored two majors in the second – one on a Losman pass, the other on a Losman scramble. That doesn’t bode well for their playoff hopes.

In two weeks, the Jets are at home against the Dolphins. Already it looks like their season is all but leading to that match. If they want to stop the vaunted Wildcat offense, they’ll need to stop the Dolphins early and often, which they didn’t do on Sunday. And it nearly cost them their season.

Later on Sunday, the Baltimore Raven / Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry flared up again, this time with the AFC North on the line.

Two fairly evenly matched teams, their previous game went to overtime, when the Steelers won 23-20. That was week three, though. When the Browns were still a team to beat. Before the division came down to the Ravens and the Steelers.

Needless to say, with two of the best defences in the game, this was bound to be a tough, physical game – if you’ll excuse the cliché, smashmouth football.

The Ravens spend most of the game stacking their defensive line, with five or six men right at the line of scrimmage. Granted, they usually went with a three-man rush, but this pressure hurt Pittsburgh’s offence. Their running game was going nowhere fast and Ben Roethlisberger was hurrying his passes. As it was, Big Ben was sharp and accurate, if his timing was a little off.

He would finish with over 200 yards and was 22 of 40 – but had it not been a few drops here and there, for a few jarring hits that dislodged balls, it’s likely he could have completed 25, even 30 passes. Against a great defence, then, Big Ben raised his game – when the Ravens blitzed, Ben answered with a quick outlet pass into the holes the linebackers left.

But on the other side, Ravens QB Joe Flacco was also under pressure. His line gave him great protection and all but shut down the Steelers James Harrison, who had been averaging a sack a game – and had two and a half when he last played the Ravens.

But the Steelers secondary had him over a barrel. Flacco was having a hard time completing passes, especially in the red zone, and the Ravens never once got into the end zone, kicking three field goals from less then 30 yards out.

This isn’t to say that the Steelers clearly outplayed the Ravens. They had no luck in close either, and their two field goals were from about the same distance. Instead, the Steelers needed a little help to win: two controversial calls helped buoy them to victory.

One was for a first down that kept a scoring drive alive: despite never appearing to cross the first down line, officials on the field gave the Steelers a first down. And when challenged, the call was upheld.

The other was for a touchdown. When Santonio Holmes scored the game winning TD, he made a catch at about the goal line, his feet behind it but the ball obstinately in front. But an official review gave the Steelers a touchdown; Holmes had possession with the ball breaking the plane.

By getting this tough win, the Steelers look as good as anybody going into the playoffs. This was, more or less, a playoff game in all but name, and the Steelers played great, with a final drive for the ages. This win has to make them preemptive favourites for the AFC title game; if they can beat this Ravens team on the road, they’ll likely to beat whomever they face when they play at home in the playoffs.

Other notes: The Jets had the toughest win in the AFC East, but the other two had wins of their own. The Patriots are still as good as ever, as Cassell seems to be growing into his role as starting QB. The Patriots win over Oakland was nowhere near as close as the 49-26 score shows. Should the Jets flounder, don’t be surprised to see the Patriots make a run for the title game… By beating Tampa Bay in overtime, the Falcons kept their playoff hopes alive, and helped the NFC South leading Carolina Panther. Tampa has dropped two of their last three and looks to be falling back to Earth fast: those two losses were to division rivals. And the Panthers have a two game lead over both the Falcons and Bucs… Houston’s stunning win over the Tennessee Titans wasn’t really all that stunning of a game – one touchdown, neither team having 400 total yards, and neither offense looked as dynamic as they had all season. But with the division already wrapped up, I wouldn’t take too much away from the Titans losing.

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Written by M.

December 15, 2008 at 5:04 pm

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