- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 15, 2009

STORY OF THE WEEK

There’s not a great team in the bunch, but the AFC East had the best week of any division. All four teams won, leaving the New England Patriots, heavily favored in the preseason to win their seventh division title in nine years, a game ahead of the surging New York Jets and Miami Dolphins with three games to play.

The Patriots (8-5) got by mediocre Carolina 20-10 on Sunday, but it wasn’t pretty. Receiver Randy Moss was held to one catch for 16 yards. In truth, Moss and his teammates have been out of sorts since thrashing the Jets on Nov. 22, getting crushed at New Orleans and blowing a big lead at Miami.

New England’s struggles have given the defending division champion Dolphins, who held off Jacksonville 14-10, and the Jets, who whipped lowly Tampa Bay 26-3, opportunities to get back in the hunt. Miami has won four of five behind mercurial running back Ricky Williams and rising young quarterback Chad Henne. The Jets have won three in a row as first-year coach Rex Ryan’s defense has allowed just 22 points.

Buffalo (5-8) won’t make the playoffs, but the Bills have beaten the Jets and Dolphins and host the Patriots on Sunday. New England has the slightly easier schedule of the three contenders.

The only trouble with the AFC East race is that New England, Miami and the Jets are done playing each other. That warrants a thumbs down to the schedule-makers.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

GREEN BAY PACKERS

They’re not going to win the NFC North because the Minnesota Vikings are 11-2, but the Packers continued their renaissance Sunday by winning 21-14 at Chicago for their first sweep of the NFL’s oldest rivalry in six years. Green Bay (9-4) can clinch a playoff spot this week if it wins at plunging Pittsburgh and the Giants (7-6) lose to the Redskins. While quarterback Aaron Rodgers receives most of the attention, the hero in Green Bay is new defensive coordinator Dom Capers, whose 3-4 scheme has transformed that side of the ball. The Packers are ranked second on defense a year after finishing 20th. They won’t be an easy first-round foe.

FIVE TRENDS FROM WEEK 14

UP: Peyton Manning threw three interceptions against the Broncos. Brandon Marshall set an NFL record by catching 21 passes for 200 yards against an injury-riddled secondary. And yet the Colts still steamrollered to a 28-16 victory, improving to 13-0 and clinching home-field advantage in the AFC with a record-setting 22nd straight triumph.

DOWN: They’re still in the playoff race at 7-6, but 2009 has been a season to forget for the New York Giants, who fell behind archrival Philadelphia 14-0 at home and stormed back to lead 31-30 only to fall 45-38 for their sixth loss in eight games. New York has surrendered an average of 32.4 points during that stretch.

UP: While the Giants are sinking, the Eagles (9-4) are soaring, winning four in a row to take sole possession of the NFC East. Philadelphia has averaged 32.5 points during its run as DeSean Jackson continues to be the NFL’s top big-play weapon. The second-year playmaker had touchdowns of 72 and 60 yards Sunday.

DOWN: Barring a complete collapse, Cincinnati (9-5) is going to win the AFC North, but the Bengals’ 30-10 loss at Minnesota was disheartening. Cincinnati was terrific against division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh but failed its first serious test otherwise since Week 2 heading into a big game at San Diego.

UP: The Chargers (10-3) won their eighth straight by surviving 20-17 at Dallas. Philip Rivers is overshadowed by Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, but he’s perhaps the game’s best young quarterback. San Diego, which upset Indianapolis in the 2007 and 2008 playoffs, should have a first-round bye if it beats Cincinnati.

NEXT MAN UP

List of big injuries from Week 14:

LB DeMarcus Ware (neck), Dallas: The Cowboys’ top defensive player was carted off with a sprained neck during the fourth quarter of a 20-17 loss to San Diego. Ware was released from a hospital Sunday night, and the team said Monday he is day-to-day and could play Saturday.

RB Kevin Smith (knee), Detroit: The Lions’ leading rusher was carted off the field with what likely will be a season-ending knee injury during the fourth quarter of the 48-3 loss at Baltimore. Veteran Maurice Morris replaced Smith.

QB Bruce Gradkowski (knees), Oakland: Installed just last month as the Raiders’ starter, Gradkowski tore ligaments in both knees when he was hit by Chris Wilson during the second quarter of a 34-13 loss to the Redskins. Former No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell replaced Gradkowski.

FS Chris Crocker (ankle), Cincinnati: The AFC North leaders may have lost more than a game Sunday at Minnesota. Crocker, who came into the game with an ailing ankle, aggravated the injury during the first quarter. He didn’t return and was in a walking boot after the 30-10 defeat. Rookie Tim Nelson is Crocker’s backup.

RB Correll Buckhalter (ankle), Denver: The AFC wild-card leaders lost their versatile No. 2 back to an ankle injury during the first quarter of their 28-16 loss at Indianapolis. Buckhalter didn’t return, leaving rookie Knowshon Moreno to struggle in full-time duty. Peyton Hillis carried once after Buckhalter departed.

NUMBERS GAME

Interesting stat about the Week 14 games:

1,626 Rushing yards this season for the Titans’ Chris Johnson. He’s on pace to finish with 2,001.

HOT SEAT

Whose performance in Week 14 puts them in the spotlight for next week:

WADE PHILLIPS/JASON GARRETT/TONY ROMO

Sunday’s 20-17 home loss to San Diego dropped Dallas to 3-8 in December and January under third-year coach Wade Phillips and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, who is no longer the hot commodity he was when he came to the Cowboys in 2007. Tony Romo, who replaced Drew Bledsoe as the starting quarterback during the 2006 season, adds that 2-4 finish to his resume, making him 5-12 after November. The Cowboys’ second straight December defeat dropped them out of a tie for the NFC East lead, although at 8-5 they’re still the conference’s second wild card. But Dallas visits New Orleans on Saturday, then Washington before finishing against Philadelphia in what could be Wade’s last stand. And Jerry’s next coach is… ?

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