|Gregory Shamus / Getty Images|
|Although the Steelers prevailed, rookie RB Tashard Choice played like a starter for the Cowboys.|
Take a look back at Week 14:
1. A quick look at the playoff picture
Realistically, there are 18 teams involved in the playoff mix -- nine in the AFC and nine in the NFC. Of course, three spots have been taken, as the Titans, Giants and Cardinals clinched their respective division titles. So at this point, 15 teams are fighting for the other nine spots.
Here are a couple of things to consider when trying to sort out the last three weeks of the season:
» The best record over the past four weeks indicates who is hot. Pittsburgh and Indianapolis are the only 4-0 teams (add Tampa Bay if it wins on Monday night). Who's not hot? San Diego and Washington are both 1-3, which indicates a longer shot at making the postseason.
» How tough is the remaining schedule and how many games are left at home? The Bucs, Colts and Jets have two games at home and the record of their remaining opponents is 16-23. I like their chances. The teams with the biggest hill to climb have one remaining home game and the toughest schedule. The Panthers face a 26-13 record from opponents with one game at Bank of America Stadium. The Cowboys face the ugliest situation, even with two games at home, because they face three teams with a combined 27-11-1 record, and all three opponents have defenses ranked in the top seven.
2. My Spoilers came through
Last week I wrote my favorite "spoilers" were the Texans and 49ers. After speaking with a number of players from both teams, I came away with the feeling that these teams were fired up to finish strong and they both delivered. Houston had 549 yards of offense in its victory over Green Bay. San Francisco beat the Jets, holding New York to 182 total yards. Give Mike Singletary a contract extension!
3. Off the bench
Win or lose, when a backup player is asked to come in and deliver, it is critical that he gets the job done. Four players stepped up in Week 14:
» Tarvaris Jackson filled in for Gus Frerotte in the second half against the Lions and connected on 8 of 10 passes for 105 yards and a TD. Psychologically, it was the best thing to happen to the Vikings at this point in the season.
» Dolphins rookie WR Davone Bess, playing in place of Greg Camarillo, grabbed nine balls for 74 yards.
» Seahawks backup QB Seneca Wallace didn't deliver a win, but his best day as a pro wasn't the reason Seattle fell to New England.
» Cowboys rookie RB Tashard Choice had the toughest assignment, filling in for Marion Barber on the road against Pittsburgh's No. 1 defense. He had 28 touches for 166 yards.
4. Coaching decisions that caught my eye
Coaching can be really exciting this time of year, when the playoffs are on the line. The Ravens use of the unbalanced line and heavy backfield set with Le'Ron McClain and Lorenzo Neal was tough to defend for the Redskins. Nearly 500 pounds coming down hill behind two offensive tackles made the point of attack hard to defend. Baltimore had a three-play series in which it used the power play, a roll out pass and a throw back pass.
My other favorite coaching decision came when the Titans went for it on fourth down in the second quarter against the Browns. They threw the "flow" pass to Ahmard Hall, which went for a 28-yard touchdown. It is almost impossible to defend when you are worrying about either LenDale White or Chris Johnson running for a first down.
5. Is the decision easier to see?
Many teams will have a quarterback decision to make in the offseason. They have to decide whether it is time to take a QB high in the draft, pay an aging veteran, execute a trade, or go with what they have. Week 14 should have helped clear up the decision for a few teams. The Chiefs and 49ers have to feel pretty good about Tyler Thigpen and Shaun Hill. They may be worth building around. The Cardinals and Titans need to pay Kurt Warner and Kerry Collins to stay, regardless of their age. The Vikings need to see more, but Jackson looked promising in relief.
6. Back inside where they belong
Last week it was clear that three passing teams, New Orleans (No.1), Arizona (No.2), and Indianapolis (No.7) didn't function as well outside when the weather became a factor. They all won this weekend, inside, where they belong. They combined for 98 points. The Colts don't have a weather issue until the playoffs, but the Saints are outside this Thursday in freezing Chicago, while the Cardinals get one more chance to solve their biggest issue when they come east to play the Patriots in two weeks. If any of these teams wants to make a run in the playoffs, they must learn to win in bad weather.
7. Look in the mirror
I will never accuse a professional player of packing it in, but even a slight loss of the competitive edge by a few players can make the entire team look like it has given up on the season. There are three weeks left and a few teams need to have a gut check. I know the coaches and fans in Jacksonville, Green Bay, Cincinnati, Oakland and St. Louis expect a great effort for the rest of the season.
Not on the list to look in the mirror are the 0-13 Detroit Lions, who played like a team with a lot of fight left in it after a poor Thanksgiving Day game, and the Kansas City Chiefs, who took the Broncos to the edge.