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Teams get impressive contributions from bench as playoffs loom

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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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:

Kirwan's unsung heroes

Jim Johnson

Defensive coordinator, Eagles
The Eagles went on the road to face the Giants, who were 6-0 at home, and held them to one offensive touchdown. Philadelphia didn't have a sack or an interception, but the Giants only generated 211 yards after averaging 370.8 per game coming into the contest. Some have said the Giants were distracted, but I prefer to think the Eagles' defense played well.

Mike Martz

Offensive coordinator, 49ers
Since Mike Singletary took over and installed quarterback Shaun Hill into the offense, the team is better. Martz has the offense balanced. The Niners won the time of possession battle by more than 19 minutes and they were an impressive 8-of-15 on third down.

Alex Gibbs

Assistant head coach/offense, Texans
Gibbs brings attitude wherever he goes, and the Texans may finally start to look like an Alex Gibbs-coached offense. A road win at Lambeau Field with 549 total yards is a statement by the young Texans. Gibbs will have this group ready for a strong finish this season.

Dick LeBeau

Defensive coordinator, Steelers
LeBeau is one of the most creative minds in defensive football. The Steelers play coverage, steal routes when you think they will be blitzing and pressure in so many ways it is impossible to prepare for all of them. When I saw Casey Hampton, the 350-pound nose tackle, covering the running back on a swing route, I had to put LeBeau on the Unsung list this week. On Dallas' final series, it just looked like Tony Romo struggled to know where to go with the ball.

Note: For nine years, Pat Kirwan has written the Unsung Heroes column during the season to bring attention to the people behind the scenes that help make some of the extraordinary things happen in the NFL on any given weekend.

At the end of the year, the Unsung Hero of the Year is presented a trophy made in the name of Chip Myers, a longtime NFL assistant coach and former player who passed away just days after he was elevated to his first coordinator position with the Minnesota Vikings. Chip was well respected by everyone in the coaching ranks and embodied all the virtues assistant coaches need to be successful. He was humble, a good teacher, a loyal friend and a tireless worker.

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

Kirwan chat transcript
NFL.com senior analyst Pat Kirwan answered questions about Week 14 and much more in a live chat Monday afternoon. Read what Pat thinks about which teams have a chance to make a late playoff run, among other things. Chat transcript

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.

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