- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

STORY OF THE WEEK

While the AFC division titles are all close to being wrapped up, the race for the conference’s two wild-card berths looks like a doozy. Miami and Denver lost Sunday, but Tennessee and Pittsburgh - which beat Green Bay on a last-second touchdown - hung on to join the Dolphins, Texans, Jaguars and Jets at 7-7, a game back of the Broncos and Baltimore.

If the Ravens - who lost cornerback Lardarius Webb to a knee injury while routing Chicago - repeat their Nov. 29 victory this week at Pittsburgh, they’ll solidify their hold on a wild-card spot and eliminate the defending champs. The Texans-Dolphins loser also would be out, and the Jets and Jaguars would be in deep trouble with losses to the undefeated Colts and the Patriots, respectively.

Denver, which was shocked by Oakland on Sunday, is probably playoff-bound but faces a tough test at NFC East leader Philadelphia before winding up at home against the Chiefs. The Titans, who have won seven of eight but lost top tackler Keith Bulluck to a sprained knee while edging the Dolphins in overtime, also have a big challenge against the Chargers. San Diego has won nine in a row and is on the verge a first-round bye.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Until Sunday, the Browns had little to celebrate during a dismal season. But Jerome Harrison, filling in for the retiring Jamal Lewis, broke the immortal Jim Brown’s franchise record by rushing for 286 yards (third most in NFL history) to lead Cleveland past Kansas City 41-34. Harrison also ran for three touchdowns, including the 28-yard game-winner with 44 seconds left. The Browns’ two other touchdowns came on kickoff returns of 100 and 103 yards by Josh Cribbs, who broke the NFL record by recording his eighth such score. Cribbs’ two scores also equaled the single-game record for return touchdowns.

FIVE TRENDS FROM WEEK 15

UP: The Cowboys dominated the Saints from the start in pulling the 24-17 upset that kept them a game behind the Eagles in the NFC East. Dallas can clinch the division by winning its final two games.

DOWN: The previously perfect Saints had been playing with fire this month - coming from behind to beat Washington and Atlanta - but that downturn finally caught up with them against a tough Dallas team. New Orleans trailed 24-3 in the fourth quarter as the Cowboys ravaged the Saints’ increasingly vulnerable defense for 439 yards.

UP: It won’t change the facts of a lost season in Carolina, and it might not even save coach John Fox’s job. However, the Panthers (6-8) have to be feeling great after outscoring NFC North champion Minnesota 20-0 in the fourth quarter to win 26-7 as the unknown Matt Moore outplayed legendary passer Brett Favre.

DOWN: Playing a team that had been eliminated from the playoffs the previous night, the powerful Vikings were the ones going through the motions at Carolina on Sunday. Minnesota allowed four sacks and had its 36-game streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher broken by Jonathan Stewart. The Vikings need to get back in gear before the postseason begins.

UP: Arizona won two consecutive division titles for the first time in 34 years, and it wasn’t easy. The Cardinals blew a 17-0 halftime lead before holding off downtrodden Detroit 31-24. Lions safety Louis Delmas became the first rookie with an interception, safety and touchdowns off an interception and fumble recovery.

NEXT MAN UP

List of big injuries from Week 15:

QB Charlie Frye (head), Oakland: The Raiders lost a starting quarterback for a second straight week, but this time JaMarcus Russell didn’t get sacked six times in relief. The top overall pick in 2007 had a last-minute touchdown pass to beat Denver.

CB Quentin Jammer (knee), San Diego: The AFC West champion Chargers survived the showdown with the Bengals but lost their ace cornerback to a left knee injury during the third quarter. Second-year man Antoine Cason replaced Jammer.

RB Michael Turner (ankle), Atlanta: The Falcons standout has made this list more often than anyone this year. Turner, bothered by the ankle for several weeks, was reinjured on the first play of the victory at the Jets and didn’t return.

RB DeAngelo Williams (ankle), Carolina: The Panthers’ leading rusher injured his left ankle during the first quarter of the upset of Minnesota and didn’t return. That made Jonathan Stewart a full-time back.

LB Aaron Curry, Seattle: The Seahawks’ top draft pick left Sunday’s game after suffering a left shoulder stinger in the ugly loss to lowly Tampa Bay. Seahawks coach Jim Mora said Curry was unable to regain strength in his shoulder and arm.

NUMBERS GAME

Interesting stat about the Week 15 games:

9 Consecutive seasons with at least nine victories by New England. Indianapolis is next with eight straight seasons.

HOT SEAT

Whose performance in Week 15 puts him in the spotlight for next week:

BRETT FAVRE

When Brett Favre and the Jets nose-dived from an 8-3 start to a 9-7 finish in 2008, the quarterback had a shoulder injury that prevented him from throwing with his usual zip. But what’s the Hall of Fame lock’s excuse for his December decline with Minnesota? With the chance to move within a game of New Orleans for home-field advantage, Favre and the Vikings (11-3) were crushed for the second time on “Sunday Night Football” in three weeks, this time 26-7 by so-so Carolina. Favre’s numbers before December were startling: 24 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 112.1 passer rating. In three games this month, he has been mortal: three touchdowns, four interceptions and a 76.1 rating. Minnesota has won the NFC North and a first-round bye is likely, but there’s trouble in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

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