|Doug Benc / Getty Images|
|Bill Parcells' decision to unite Tony Sparano and Chad Pennington in Miami has resulted in a dream season.|
The only people who didn't like the Week 15 action in the NFL were those who had set aside time to fill out their holiday cards. The games provided too many exciting distractions.
In fact, Week 15 may have been one of the all-time most exciting weekends in the NFL. It started Thursday night when Chicago's Danieal Manning went 83 yards for a touchdown on the opening kickoff against New Orleans. By the time the nine early games on Sunday were complete, the winners of the first 10 games of Week 15 had outscored the losers by a combined total of 41 points.
Two games were decided by one point. Three were decided by three points. The largest margin of victory in those games was the Colts' 10-point win over Detroit -- and even that game was closer than the score indicated.
In Arizona, Minnesota got an 82-yard punt return TD from Bernard Berrian early in the first quarter to kick off a scoring frenzy. The Vikings were forced to start Tarvaris Jackson in place of injured quarterback Gus Frerotte, and all Jackson did was throw four TD passes.
There were back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdowns in the New England-Oakland game -- the first by Justin Miller (91 yards) for Oakland, followed by Ellie Hobbs (95 yards) for New England. In a driving rainstorm, thse teams combined for 75 points and 821 yards of total offense. The Patriots ran for 277 yards -- their best total since 1985 -- and Matt Cassel passed for four TDs.
In the spirit of the holidays, Sunday's best was saved for last -- as the Cowboys beat the rival Giants in a hard-hitting Sunday night game. The Dallas victory was sealed when another rookie running back, Tashard Choice, ran 38 yards for a score with 2:16 left that gave the Cowboys an insurmountable lead.
Dallas 20, N.Y. Giants 8
The Giants entered the game without suspended WR Plaxico Burress and injured RB Brandon Jacobs, and during the course of the game they lost two starting offensive linemen. The Cowboys' game plan was to stop the run and play press coverage on the Giants receivers, and the plan worked to perfection. After the first 30 plays from scrimmage, the Giants had just 89 yards. They finished with 218 yards, which was 140 below their season average. The Giants came into the game with the NFL's top rushing offense, but were held to 41 rushing yards through the first three quarters. They finished with one play of more than 20 yards -- a 23-yard pass to tight end Kevin Boss, who had lined up outside as a receiver on the play.
The key play in the game for Dallas occurred in the first half when Tony Romo rolled right and threw a 34-yard TD pass to Patrick Crayton. The play was challenged by Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who contended that Romo had crossed the line of scrimmage before throwing the pass. The replay showed just part of his body was across the line. And -- as we were reminded a few weeks ago when the Giants were on the winning side of this kind of challenge -- the pass is legal unless the passer is completely over the line.
Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware had three sacks in the game, giving him 19 for the season. Only six players in NFL history have had more sacks in a season. Of course, sacks did not become an official NFL stat until 1982. But teams had kept track of sacks prior to that, and the Cowboys' team record for sacks in a season is actually 23, set in 1977 by Harvey Martin.
The Dallas offense was introduced to start the game, and Terrell Owens received a chorus of boos. Late in the fourth quarter, TV cameras caught a shot of T.O., Romo and Jason Witten sharing a laugh on the sidelines.
Pittsburgh 13, Baltimore 9
The top two defensive teams in the NFL did not disappoint in this game. The Steelers ended up winning both the game and the statistical battle -- limiting the Ravens to 202 yards while winning their first game in Baltimore since 2002.
Pittsburgh started the winning drive at its own 8-yard line with 3:32 to play. The 12-play drive featured 11 passes, and took 2:53 to execute. It ended with Ben Roethlisberger rolling left on second-and-goal from the 4 and completing a pass to Santonio Holmes. It was first ruled no score, and then overturned and ruled a touchdown after replay review. It would have been more interesting to see what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin chose to do had the play not been ruled a touchdown. With no timeouts, would the Steelers have kicked a game-tying field goal or would they have tried to punch it in from the 1?
Jared Johnson, one of the Ravens wedge players, returned the ensuing kick to the Ravens 47-yard line with 43 seconds remaining. On second-and-9 from Pittsburgh's 39 with 17 seconds to play, Joe Flacco's pass was intercepted in the end zone by William Gay (who foolishly tried to return it before finally taking a knee).
Baltimore lined up offensive tackle Adam Terry as a tight end on the left side to negate the play of linebacker James Harrison, who was held without a sack in the game. The Ravens won that battle, but eventually they lost the game because of their inability to complete passes. The Steelers defense held Flacco to 11 of 28 attempts for 115 yards, two sacks and two interceptions.
This was the battle everyone expected. Both teams will have to spend a lot of time in the whirlpool getting ready for next week, and it doesn't get much easier for either squad -- Baltimore plays at Dallas on the NFL Network Saturday night, while Pittsburgh goes to Tennessee for a game that could decide the AFC's top seed.
Miami 14, San Francisco 9
The 49ers had the ball for 38:16 in this game, but they could not reach the end zone. The game ended, fittingly, with Joey Porter sacking Shaun Hill with 1:02 left to play. The 49ers were on Miami's 21-yard line.
The Dolphins have held their opponent without a TD for three consecutive games -- the last time that happened was in 1973. Miami quarterback Chad Pennington attempted just 19 passes in the game, but two went for TDs.
This has been somewhat of a dream season for the Dolphins. Going from one win in 2007 to a possible playoff team in 2008 is just not supposed to happen.
Bill Parcells will tell anyone who will listen that he has nothing to do with the every day development of this team, but he needs to be applauded for his move to get Pennington, whom he drafted with the Jets because -- as he likes to say -- he does the best job of managing the game.
The Dolphins don't rate high in any offensive or defensive categories, but they lead the NFL in takeaways. Miami finishes at Kansas City and at the Jets. If they win these two games, they win the division.
Houston 13, Tennessee 12
The Texans had lost seven straight to Titans, who had already locked up a first-round bye. Tennessee had a fourth-and-3 from Houston's 32-yard line late in the game, and passed on a 49-yard field goal attempt by Rob Bironas, who already had converted four field goals, including a 51-yarder in the third quarter. They chose to pass, and when Kerry Collins' attempt fell incomplete, it gave the Texans their seventh win of the season.
N.Y. Jets 31, Buff 27
Instead of trying to run out the clock with a 27-24 lead and just over two minutes to play, Buffalo coach Dick Jauron overruled offensive coordinator Turk Schonert's call of a running play and opted for a pass on second-and-5 from its own 27. The decision resulted in a Bills turnover -- QB J.P. Losman fumbled and it was run in for a touchdown by Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis. Christmas came early for the Jets, who must travel to Seattle this weekend and then finish at home vs. the Dolphins. For the Patriots and Dolphins, it was the equivalent of a lump of coal in their stockings.
Pittsburgh has gone 14 games without allowing 300 yards, tying the record set in 1973 by the Los Angeles Rams to start the season. â¦ Dallas Clark set a single-game Colts record for receptions by a tight end with 12. â¦ Adrian Peterson set two single-season Vikings records -- 1,581 rushing yards and nine 100-yard games in a season. Robert Smith had held the previous record for both. â¦ Peterson and the Falcons' Michael Turner are 1-2 in rushing; Atlanta and Minnesota have never had a player lead the NFL in rushing. â¦ The Raiders are the first team in NFL history to lose 11 games in six consecutive seasons. â¦ Kansas City, before Sunday's game, had a total of six sacks all season; they had three on Sunday. Also in that game, in the last 1:13, San Diego scored two touchdowns in 37 seconds. â¦ Carolina sacked Denver QB Jay Cutler three times. Cutler had not been sacked in the previous four games. â¦ Jason Hanson's 41st career field goal of 50-plus yards set an all-time NFL record. â¦ Wes Welker became the eighth player in NFL history with back-to-back 100-reception seasons. â¦ Miami had no turnovers Sunday, and they have a total of 10 for the season. The record-low is 14 in 1990 by the Giants.