There were plenty of intriguing developments in Week 15. Here are six that caught my attention:
1. Help wanted: Clutch kickers
Eleven games were decided by seven or fewer points this weekend heading into Monday night's matchup. That means kickers probably played a critical part in the outcomes of those games.
If you're a Dallas fan, you are excited about beating the undefeated Saints, but you most likely pulled your hair out as you witnessed Nick Folk miss his league-leading 10th field goal of the year, which ultimately gave the Saints one last chance to win. If you're a Packers fan, you probably were reaching for the Alka-Seltzer after Mason Crosby's ninth miss of the season, a 34-yard attempt in the second quarter that was the difference in a one-point loss at Pittsburgh.
In all, there were 12 missed field goals in Week 15, which raises two questions: Why, and what can be done about it?
After looking at all of the misses, one thing that jumped out at me was that cold weather was a big factor. In games in which the temperature was below 32 degrees, kickers missed 6 of 11 attempts. One coach noted to me that the kicker's plant foot and the holder's job can be affected by cold air and wind. Of course, weather was not a factor for the Cowboys, who played in the Superdome.
Unfortunately for them, there aren't a lot of options. The Cowboys brought in kickers Monday, and ultimately decided to sign former Redskins kicker Shaun Suisham and release Folk.
Three kickers with 2009 game experience are on the street -- Steve Hauschka (9 for 13 with Baltimore), Jason Elam (12 for 19 with Atlanta), and Folk (18 for 28 with Dallas). Because of injuries to their kickers, the Cardinals and Colts recently signed Mike Nugent and Matt Stover, respectively, taking two of the top free agents off the market. The Redskins recently signed the UFL's best kicker, Graham Gano.
And with no teams carrying kickers on their practice squads, it may be time for coaches to put their arms around their kickers and say, "I believe in you."
It sounds like that's exactly what Mike McCarthy is doing with Crosby. âMason Crosbyâs our kicker," the Packers coach said on Monday. "He will be our kicker going forward. Zero interest in bringing in a kicker.â
2. Definition of 'professional'
Some fans may stop coming to games when their favorite team is eliminated from the playoff hunt, but this weekend was another great example of how hard NFL players play.
No one can fault the efforts of the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions in their Week 15 losses. The Rams deserve even more recognition for their professionalism, as they were down to their third quarterback and spent most of the week unable to practice because of a swine flu outbreak. Yet they went out and played the Texans very tough in a 16-13 loss. I talked with people in St. Louis on Saturday who didn't know if they were going to have enough healthy bodies to even play.
Then there were the Falcons and Raiders. Atlanta found out it was eliminated from playoff contention Saturday night when the Cowboys beat the Saints. Seven players were listed as game-time decisions because of injury and five of them played with nothing on the line, and the Falcons beat the Jets in freezing conditions. Oakland started its game against the Broncos with Charlie Frye -- who had not started a game since Oct. 12, 2008, when he threw for 84 yards as a member of the Seahawks. He played well until he got hurt, then JaMarcus Russell came in and beat Denver.
No one can say NFL players pack it in when the playoff race is over.
3. Rookie linebackers impress
Seven linebackers from the draft class of 2009 have impressed me this season and really stood out in Week 15. The Texans-Rams game featured Brian Cushing (Houston) and James Laurinaitis (St. Louis). The Packers' two outside linebackers came up big Sunday when Clay Matthews and Brad Jones teamed up for 12 tackles, four sacks, and six tackles for a loss. Also keep your eye on Rey Maualuga (Cincinnati), Aaron Curry (Seattle) and DeAndre Levy (Detroit).
Bill Cowher and I watched all of them play on Sunday, and when a young linebacker impresses Coach Cowher, you're doing something right. The former Pittsburgh head coach was heard twice saying of Matthews, "He is just like his father." Cowher played with the elder Matthews in Cleveland.
4. The pump-fake draw
The draw play is nothing new. The pump-fake by the quarterback to move a safety in the passing game isn't new, either. What is a growing trend among many teams -- especially the Cowboys, Jets, Steelers, among others -- is the pump-fake draw.
When the QB takes his non-throwing hand off the ball and pump-fakes a throw, it forces the middle linebacker to get into his drop and even some of the pass rushers to get their hand up to block a pass. Both of those reactions soften the middle of the defense just enough to run a solid lead draw. Keep your eye on teams using it moving forward.
5. Did you know?
» Brady Quinn has won two games in a row and hasn't thrown for 100 yards in either one. He completed 10 of 17 passes for 66 yards and two interceptions on Sunday against Kansas City.
» Don't blame Matt Cassel for all of the Chiefs' problems. He came into the game with a set of receivers with more dropped passes (39) than any team in the league. This week was no exception, as another seven passes were dropped.
» Wes Welker never gets mentioned for the Pro Bowl, which is a shame. All he does is catch short passes from the slot and move the chains. He has 109 receptions, tops in the NFL, and his 1,198 yards is third in the league. Yet you still don't hear his name mentioned in the Pro Bowl discussion.
6. Answering the bell
Randy Moss, who was so highly criticized last week by opposing players as a guy that "shut it down," responded Sunday with a solid performance, catching five balls for 70 yards and a TD.
The other guy who is notorious for responding after a bad day is Kurt Warner. Earlier this year he had a followed up a five-interception game with a five-touchdown performance. Warner has had three games this season with multiple interceptions. In the three games that followed those, he led Arizona to wins, with nine touchdowns and zero interceptions. This week, Warner got a win and threw two touchdowns, but also threw his first interception after a multiple-pick performace last week. Regardless, he had a solid day.