Week 12 was chock-full of interesting plots and storylines. Here are six that caught my attention:
1. Sometimes we outguess ourselves
I love coaching decisions that catch an opponent off guard, especially when a team knows it needs to take a risk to win. But there are times that we all can outguess ourselves, and NFL coaches are as guilty as the rest of us.
The Dolphins' Wildcat pass from the 3-yard line in the opening drive of their loss to Buffalo is a play the Fish would love to have back. The play resulted in an interception, after Miami had rushed five times for 32 yards (6.4 average) to reach the 3.
The fake punt by the Tampa Bay Bucs when they had a 17-13 lead in the fourth quarter backfired, and it may be a while before the Bucs try it again.
As I have said, I really like aggressive play-calling, but these were three calls that we may not see again in 2009.
2. Backups best be ready
By the end of the 2009 season, we should see close to 80 quarterbacks throw at least one pass during the season and we should see close to 55 quarterbacks start games. Week 12 was a strong reminder that you better have a solid backup quarterback, as five teams had to dip into their depth chart.
Atlanta got a win from Chris Redman, Arizona got a solid performance from Matt Leinart in a loss and St. Louis got a disappointing outing from Kyle Boller in which he was sacked four times and threw two interceptions. Bruce Gradkowski started again for the Raiders, but could only generate one touchdown in a loss. Finally, Steelers third-string QB Dennis Dixon, in a critical game for Pittsburgh, got the late call to start on the road against the Ravens. Dixon had no real playing experience but played his heart out in an OT loss.
3. Two for the show
All the talk surrounds the Colts, Saints, Vikings and Patriots, but I'm starting to like a few teams we don't talk about enough. Keep an eye on the Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys. Both teams are 8-3. Both have solid running games, good quarterbacks and better-than-advertised defenses.
The Cowboys were always in the spotlight in years past and couldn't deliver. This year, they are way under the radar and operate in a much better atmosphere.
The Bengals have been labeled as a group of troublemakers in the past, but there hasn't been one issue off the field this year that has created the previous distractions. After watching the Cowboys and Bengals win this weekend, it is time to think about how far these teams can go in the postseason, because they are built differently in 2009.
4. Ain't over 'til it's over
The three comebacks that I enjoyed watching the most took place in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Tennessee.
The Falcons had two minutes to overcome a 17-13 deficit and they didn't have Matt Ryan under center. Chris Redman got help from a defensive holding call, but also went 7-for-14 and hit four different receivers en route to keeping Atlanta's playoff hopes alive.
The Eagles played a sloppy game and found themselves down eight points in the fourth quarter. They needed two scores to win and move past a strange game they should have lost. With their top receiver, DeSean Jackson, lost to an injury, underrated Jason Avant stepped up with two receptions for 66 yards -- but then he was injured. After key plays from some of the young backups and two defensive penalties, Philadelphia tied the game. The defense then did a nice job and with a drive starting on their own 20-yard line, the pass-happy Eagles surprised me by calling upon the run game. Six runs, mostly by rookie LeSean McCoy, and two passes to rookie Jeremy Maclin led to the winning field goal.
The best comeback of the day came courtesy of the 99-yard drive by Vince Young that gave Tennessee a 20-17 win over Arizona. It also solidified Young's position as the Titans' quarterback of the present -- and, more importantly, the future.
5. The inside blitz
As I sit and watch the games each week at the CBS studio with former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, we often talk defense. What was apparent Sunday was that there is an increased level of inside linebacker blitzing.
Earlier in the season, there were a lot of pressure calls from the outside, but more blitzes recently have come from the inside. It's not a new phenomenon by any means, but protections -- and quarterback launch points in the pass game -- have made the inside blitz a good call.
Some examples: Rams rookie inside 'backer James Laurinaitis got a sack on Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck; the 49ers dialed up an inside blitz on David Garrard that led to a fourth-quarter fumble; David Harris of the Jets had a timely inside pressure that resulted in a sack against Carolina.
Try to keep your eye on the inside 'backers next week if you want to see some great pressure calls.
6. Houston, we feel your pain
The Houston Texans lost two games in a row because of missed field goals before their Week 12 home game against the division-rival Colts this weekend. Indianapolis came in with a 14-1 record against the Texans, but there was a strong feeling that this was the day Houston was going to make a statement about how good it really is -- and the 20-7 halftime score was a strong indication. By the end of 60 minutes, however, it was once again the Colts in the winner's circle.
I feel your pain, Houston. It reminds me what it was like to be with the Jets back in the '90s. We had a good team, but the AFC East was being dominated by Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. The better we played in those division games, the better those Hall of Fame quarterbacks played. Remember the "fake spike" by Marino to beat the Jets? I was there for that one! If Marino or Kelly got the ball last, we were destined to feel like the Houston Texans felt in their locker room Sunday.
Peyton Manning is going to raise his game to whatever level it takes to win the game, which explains why they are on a 20-game regular-season winning streak. Manning struggled in the first half Sunday, with two interceptions, one TD pass and a sack. In the second half, he wasn't sacked and he threw two touchdown passes.
Houston, it may be time to acknowledge that winning the AFC South might only happen when Manning retires.