- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 29, 2009

STORY OF THE WEEK

The choking sounds coming from sunny South Florida and the swamps of New Jersey aren’t a beached manatee or the Boss fighting a bad cold.

The Miami Dolphins and New York Giants both suffered losses at home that wiped out their playoff hopes.

The Dolphins’ 27-20 defeat at the hands of a decent Texans team at least was understandable - especially coming on the heels of a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Titans the previous week.

And the Dolphins never figured to be alive in Week 16 anyway, not after starting 0-3 and losing quarterback Chad Pennington for the year.

The Giants have no such excuses for their embarrassing 41-9 loss to the Panthers.

Sure, they had one less day to prepare because of their Monday night obliteration of the Redskins last week. Still, they were in the hunt for a playoff berth, and the already-eliminated Panthers had nothing to play for.

But the rout of the Redskins aside, the Giants simply haven’t been the same since their 5-0 start ended with a whipping by the Saints. They lost six of their next eight games, and their long-stout defense got bludgeoned on a weekly basis.

Tony Sparano, voted coach of the year by the Pro Football Writers of America in his debut last season, doesn’t have to fear for his job.

Neither does Tom Coughlin, who led the Giants to four straight playoff berths and the 2007 Super Bowl title.

But the lack of fight showed by the Giants and Dolphins with the playoffs on the line has to be a big concern for each coach as he prepares for next season.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

They were overlooked because of the dominance of the Colts and Saints.

But the Chargers have been magnificent since the middle of the season, capping a run of 10 straight victories with a 42-17 destruction of the Titans on Friday that squashed Tennessee’s playoff dreams.

The Chargers’ defense forced two early turnovers that led to touchdowns, but the hero of the game and the season was quarterback Philip Rivers.

Rivers, who succeeded Drew Brees in 2006, went 21-for-27 for 264 yards and two touchdowns through roughly three quarters.

The Chargers own an 18-0 record in December with Rivers as their starter and Norv Turner as coach. That combination also beat the Colts in the 2007 and 2008 playoffs, which makes the Chargers a definite Super Bowl threat next month.

FIVE TRENDS FROM WEEK 16

UP: The Jets went from miserable to lucky in a week. They lost at home to the Falcons on a touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter last week. But on Sunday they got a huge break when the Colts decided to rest their starters in the third quarter. That allowed the Jets to rally to a 29-15 victory and enter the final week in control of their fate.

DOWN: The Ravens were coming off routs of the Bears and Lions and had just beaten the Steelers four weeks earlier. But as in the playoffs last season, the Ravens couldn’t get the job done in Pittsburgh when it counted. The Ravens lost to the Steelers at Heinz Field 23-20 to slip to 8-7 and jeopardize a wild-card berth.

UP: Break up the Bucs? After a 1-12 start, the Bucs have won two straight. They routed the Seahawks last week and Sunday rallied from a 17-point deficit to stun the Saints in overtime. The Bucs are hurting their draft position, but right now they’re all smiles in Tampa Bay.

DOWN: Like the Dolphins and Giants, the Jaguars entered Sunday still in the running for a playoff berth. They left the hunt after a 35-7 pounding by the Patriots, their third straight loss and fourth in five weeks. Jacksonville dropped to 7-8 and the brink of elimination with the defeat.

UP: The Packers responded in style to last week’s last-second loss at Pittsburgh, clobbering the Seahawks 48-10 to clinch an NFC wild-card berth. The Packers will play their first road playoff game since 2003.

NEXT MAN UP

Key injuries from Week 16:

TE Tony Gonzalez (calf), Atlanta: The Falcons crushed the Bills 31-3 to move to 8-7 and keep alive their chances of recording consecutive winning campaigns for the first time in their 44 seasons. But they also lost their star to a calf injury.

WR Steve Smith (arm), Carolina: The last play this season for the Panthers’ standout receiver was a 27-yard touchdown that helped crush the Giants. As Smith neared the goal line, he broke his left arm when he was hit by two defenders.

LB Rey Maualuga (ankle), Cincinnati: The Bengals’ fine rookie linebacker broke his left ankle during a 17-10 AFC North-clinching victory over the Chiefs. Rashad Jeanty, who started most of last season, replaces Maualaga.

RB Pierre Thomas (ribs), New Orleans: The Saints’ surprising top running back bruised ribs when he was tackled at the end of a 26-yard run during the second quarter against the Bucs and didn’t return.

RB Ricky Williams (shoulder), Miami: A week after reaching the 1,000-yard mark, the 32-year-old Williams left the 27-20 loss to the Texans during the third quarter after injuring his right shoulder. Lex Hilliard replaced him.

NUMBERS GAME

Interesting stat from Week 16:

1,002 Career catches by Bills receiver Terrell Owens, who became just the sixth player to reach 1,000 during a loss to the Falcons. Owens joined Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter, Tim Brown and Isaac Bruce on that list.

HOT SEAT

Whose performance in Week 16 puts them in the spotlight for next week?

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

America’s darlings when December began, the Saints survived at Washington in overtime thanks only to numerous Redskins mistakes and the next week at Atlanta thanks to Jonathan Vilma’s clutch fourth-down tackle.

But now there’s serious trouble in New Orleans.

The Saints followed a loss to Dallas that spoiled their perfect season with a shocking 20-17 overtime loss to a Tampa Bay team with a 2-12 record.

They Saints still likely will be the NFC’s top playoff seed, but they’re playing their worst football of the year with just one game left.

That final opponent won’t be easy, either: The Panthers have won three of four games and are coming off a convincing win over the Vikings and a rout of the Giants - not exactly a simple tuneup for the postseason.

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