- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2006

1. The NFL is a bizarre league

No surprise there. As I told Times columnist Dan Daly after yesterday’s Redskins game, he could write the same - but different - column every single Tuesday. The NFL is messed up. Something bizarre happens every week that makes me shake my head, spew expletives (because I got some picks wrong) and re-discover why people can’t get enough of the league.

Yesterday: Cleveland beats KC after trailing 28-14. … The Jets put up 31 first-half points at Green Bay. … Rex Grossman (34 yards passing) throws three more interceptions yet the Bears win easily. … A take-no-chances QB like Brad Johnson throws four INTs before being benched. … The Redskins lead 14-0 before giving up 24 unanswered points to a Atlanta team that came in with four straight losses. … The Titans kick a 60-yard field goal to beat mighty Indy. …

… Lowly Arizona wins at St. Louis and Edgerrin James actually goes over 100 yards. … New England needs to rally from eight points down - at home - to beat Detroit. … Houston gains 124 yards - and beats the Raiders, whose putrid offense gains 302 yards. … Jacksonville, Team Up and Down, wins at Miami. … Tony Romo continues his Pro Bowl season with a last-second game-winning drive at the New York Giants. … Seattle’s Josh Brown kicks his fourth game-winning field goal of the season - an NFL record.

Somewhere, Paul Tagliabue is smiling today. This is what he and the original commish, Pete Rozelle, relished. Parity. Any given Sunday. All that stuff.

2. Breaking down the Redskins play calling

Leading 14-0, the Redskins stopped Atlanta on fourth-and-inches and took over possession at the Washington 48.

Some people will question the play calling of Al Saunders over the next three plays. My take:

First-and-10: Jason Campbell throws incomplete deep right side to Santana Moss. A nice throw and catch, but Moss could only get one foot in-bounds. A fine play call on first down, trying to put a dagger into the Falcons.

Second-and-10: A reverse to Antwaan Randle El loses 2 yards. Didn’t like the play call. I would have gone play action to Moss or Ladell Betts on a sweep around the left side, a play that worked on the first two scoring drives. It appeared that Campbell looked the wrong way for Randle El at the snap and had to quickly turn the other way for the handoff. By that point, the timing was off.

Third-and-12: Campbell threw incomplete to Randle El. Saunders had to call a pass here, but Campbell missed a WIDE OPEN Moss in the deep middle part of the field.

Saunders wanted to get his quarterback into the flow of the game and said he didn’t regret the play calling. Outside of the Randle El play, I don’t either. The plays simply weren’t executed.

3. Playoff picture

Each team but Philadelphia and Carolina has four games remaining. Here’s where things stand:

AFC: 1. Indianapolis (10-2). 2. San Diego (10-2). 3. Baltimore (9-3). 4. New England (9-3). 5. Denver (7-5). 6. Cincinnati (7-5). The Broncos and Bengals hold the tie-breaker over the Jets, Jacksonville and Kansas City because of better conference records.

NFC: 1. Chicago (10-2). 2. New Orleans (8-4). 3. Seattle (8-4). 4. Dallas (8-4). 5. Carolina (6-5). 6. NY Giants (6-6). Take solace, Giants fans, your team - somehow, someway - is still in the playoff hunt despite four straight losses.

4. Time to bench Grossman

Chicago quarterback Rex Grossman had a 1.3 passer rating against Minnesota. No, I’m serious, he really did. That’s worse than even Mark Brunell during his forgettable 2004 Reign of Terror as the Redskins starter.

Grossman was 6-for-19 for 34 yards and three interceptions in the Bears’ 23-13 win over my fading-fast Vikings. Chicago had a punt return for a TD, an interception for a TD and a safety.

This season, Grossman has 14 interceptions and 18 touchdowns. All of his interceptions have come in the last seven games.

It’s time for the Bears to go with Brian Griese. Granted, Griese isn’t great, but he’ll take better care of the football and gives Chicago a better shot in the postseason.

Even though the Bears are likely to have NFC home field advantage, I’d pick Dallas and New Orleans over the Bears in a title game matchup.

5. Cowboys are NFC’s best

Tony Romo’s 42-yard pass - on the run, in a tie game and with a minute remaining - to Jason Witten yesterday against the Giants was something a 10-year, multi-Super Bowl winner like a Tom Brady would make. It set up the Cowboys’ game-winning field goal.

Dallas’ win in New York not only hastens the Giants’ demise, it also made me rank the Cowboys as the NFC’s best team. That said, they’re still the No. 4 seed in the NFC because of their conference record.

But the Cowboys are where they are because of Romo.

Right now, Romo, who is 5-1 as a starter and has 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, is my second choice to be the NFC Pro Bowl quarterback, behind New Orleans’ Drew Brees. The Saints are 8-4 and Brees has 20 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and is on pace for 4,865 yards passing, which would rank as the second-best total in NFL history. You have to think Brees is licking his chops at getting a shot at the Redskins’ secondary in a few weeks.

6. Move to Cutler still right one

Even though Denver looked terrible in losing to Seattle on Sunday night and had its highest turnover total at home in six years (two interceptions, three fumbles), Mike Shanahan’s move to Jay Cutler was the right one.

Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs and Shanahan made the move to the younger quarterback because each felt his quarterback - Drew Bledsoe, Mark Brunell and Jake Plummer, respectively - had taken the team as far as he could.

Plummer was not going to lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl or even deep into the playoffs. Cutler may not either. But by giving him five games of experience this season - starting the future now - Cutler gets a head start for 2007 and will probably get a playoff game of seasoning as well this season.

7. Thursday night games bad idea

Thursday nighters kick off most people’s football weekends, but it will be interesting to see how teams will be affected by the short weeks when they are playing division games and are in playoff contention.

This week’s game is Cleveland-Pittsburgh, and both teams are out of contention. But the SF-Seattle match up later this month has playoff implications. The last Thursday night game is Minnesota-Green Bay, and both teams are finished.

The league should be careful about scheduling Thursday night games next year. On the one hand, they want to have attractive matchups so they can get good ratings. On the negative side, having only three days to recover from a game for a Thursday night contest might result in more injuries.

8. Another great NFL Films show

A good thing the NFL Network has put on lately is the “America’s Game” series featuring the 20 top Super Bowl champions.

This past Friday was an hour on the 1999 St. Louis Rams, ranked No. 19. Like I said last week about the 1983 Raiders, it’s must-see television for football fans.

The highlight from the Rams show is when Dick Vermeil said to offensive coordinator Mike Martz after he called a daring play deep in Rams territory: “Michael, Michael, Michael. Down there? … Good luck with that.”

It was an example of a head coach having complete trust in his play caller.

This week’s team is the Chiefs squad that beat Minnesota.

9. College football thoughts

* Ohio State and Florida will meet for the national title in January - something like 522 days after the Buckeyes’ last game, a win over Michigan. I have no rooting interest in the game, but if forced to make a pick, I’ll take Ohio State because a colleague’s two sons are big-time Buckeye fans.

* Notre Dame didn’t beat anybody the entire season and yet gets to play in the Sugar Bowl.

* Rutgers blew a BCS bid - and instead will play my alma mater, Kansas State, in the Houston Bowl - because of tentative play calling in the first overtime Saturday at West Virginia. The Mountaineers had the ball first and kicked a field goal, meaning Rutgers needed a touchdown to win. Instead, they played not to lose. They called a third-down play that was short of the first down and kicked a field goal. West Virginia won in the third overtime.

* Don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for that Middle Tennessee-Central Michigan bowl game in Detroit.

* I’m semi-interested in the Oklahoma-Boise State Fiesta Bowl game. Could be a game that has a combined 85 points.

* My top bowl matchups (not including BCS games). Georgia-Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Cal-Texas A&M; in the Holiday Bowl, BYU-Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl.

* Brent Musburger made the USC-UCLA game unwatchable.

10. Non-football thoughts.

* How about the North Dakota State men’s basketball team. The Bison won at No. 8 Marquette on Saturday, a day after beating Princeton.

* Ohio State freshman Greg Oden looks like he’s 34 years old.

* Just finished Tom Callahan’s book on Johnny Unitas, “Johnny U.” It’s a great read. The first half of the book didn’t have me as interested as the half of the book that deals with No. 19’s NFL career and his post-football life. I absolutely recommend it for any football fan.

* A great week for the Capitals. Following a long losing streak, they won at Tampa Bay and beat Dallas and Buffalo at home. The two home wins were especially impressive. The Caps jumped on the Sabres from the hop on Saturday, leading 3-0

* I have zero, zip, none interest in seeing Mel Gibson’s latest project, “Apocalypto.”

* I have beaucoup interest in seeing “The Good German,” “Notes on a Scandal,” and “The Good Shepherd.”

* The last two episodes of “The Wire” on HBO were some of the finest television I have seen. The season finale is Sunday night.

* Anybody else get fired up during the Redskins game

when they started showing “American Idol” promos? I sure did. Can’t get enough of Simon, Paula, Randy (not Seacrest though) and Company.

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