It's easy to point to the age factor, to simply assume that Brett Favre's 40-year-old body isn't working as well as it did earlier in the season.
It's easy to go there because we've been there. Just last season, Favre was being written off -- here and many other places -- as an old man who looked a whole lot older through the second half of the schedule than he did through the first half.
But when you put a little thought and research into the process, you find that the answer to Favre's struggles in two of his last three games isn't quite as simple as his age. Of course, 40-year-old bodies tend to break down in professional sports (and especially in the ultra-violent world of football) much faster than those in their 20s. They also tend to be less tolerant of colder weather.
Yet, by most accounts, Favre's body remains healthy enough and strong enough for him to continue to perform at the MVP-type level that he showed for most of the first 12 weeks of the season. Although he can't be absolved of all blame for the Minnesota Vikings' ugly Week 13 loss at Arizona and Sunday's shocking defeat at Carolina, there were other factors.
» Poor pass protection by the linemen. Tackle Bryant McKinnie, who had been hoping that this would be his first Pro Bowl season, was so overmatched against Julius Peppers that he wound up being pulled from the game.
» Coming out flat for the Carolina game after learning, just before kickoff, that Green Bay's loss to Pittsburgh had given them the NFC North crown.
» Being without rookie receiving sensation Percy Harvin leading up to Week 13 because of debilitating migraines, which then forced him to sit out in Week 14. Now, Harvin apparently is also dealing with two bulging disks in his neck.
» The virtual disappearance of Adrian Peterson and Minnesota's once-mighty running game.
Peppers and the rest of the Panthers' defensive front pounded on Favre so much that, with the Vikings up 7-6 in the third quarter, Minnesota coach Brad Childress wanted to remove his quarterback from the game rather than continue to expose him to more punishment. But Favre refused to come out, and later told reporters that he had established that with Childress in "a little heated discussion." Favre also made it clear he wasn't concerned about whether his coach was trying to protect him because his lone objective was "to win this ballgame. I want to stay in and do everything I can."
According to a source close to the Vikings, that version of the conversation was news to Childress, who was showering in another part of the dressing room during Favre's postgame media session. Afterward, when a member of the team's public relations staff relayed Favre's comments to the coach, he met with the quarterback and essentially asked, "What are you talking about? I talked with you about saving yourself. It wasn't about you playing or not playing (due to poor performance)." The two quickly resolved the matter, the source said, and there are no lingering hard feelings between them.
"What you have to understand about Brett is that warrior mentality that he's always going to get to," the source said. "He didn't play necessarily that well, they got beat, but (he wants to make it clear) it's not his fault; he was in until the end. That's so classic Brett."
But there isn't the slightest bit of worry within the Vikings, according to the source, that Favre might be suffering from fatigue or that his play is on a rapid decline, as it was last year when he was with the New York Jets. Favre's late-season problems in 2008 mainly resulted from a damaged biceps that has since been surgically repaired. He still has a torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder, but as of yet, it has not seemed to take away from his ability to throw with the tremendous velocity that is a staple of his game.
"If it's 'fatigue,' it's been brought on by a couple of strong defenses; give them credit," the source said. "He's not fatigued."
» Before San Diego extended its NFL-record December winning streak to 17 games, Chargers defensive lineman Jacques Cesaire gave reporters the best explanation of why he and his teammates perform so much better this time of year than they do earlier in the season: They like Christmas. "What do you really have to look forward to in September?" Cesaire said. "The first day of school?"
» You had to wonder what was going through the mind of Bruce Allen, the Washington Redskins' new general manager, as he watched Monday night's game between the team he has been hired to fix and the New York Giants. After wondering what he got himself into, he also had to be thinking about where to start with the repairs. With as poorly as the Redskins performed, the answer was simple: Everywhere.
The players' lackluster effort could have been interpreted as a sign that, amid reports of Mike Shanahan waiting in the wings to become the new head coach, they simply felt no reason to even pretend to be responsive to current coach Jim Zorn. But if that was the case, then what did it say about the so-called auditioning for jobs next year that was supposed to happen in the final weeks now that Allen is overseeing all things football?
» Norv Turner might not be getting enough credit for the Chargers' success. How often do you hear his name in the conversation for coach-of-the-year honors? I can tell you: Never. Colts first-year coach Jim Caldwell is viewed as a shoo-in for the honor, and it's pretty hard to argue against his 14-0 case. Josh McDaniels, Denver's rookie coach, had been frequently mentioned as a strong candidate ... but then came the loss to the Colts and Sunday's stunning defeat to Oakland. Other contenders are Sean Payton of New Orleans and Andy Reid of Philadelphia, although neither seemingly has a chance to gain more votes than Caldwell. Still, Turner should be getting much more attention for his considerable role in the Chargers' rebound from a 2-3 start and their nine-game winning streak.
"Coach made a great point to us when we started winning," offensive guard Louis Vasquez said. "He said, 'We're not going to play like we have something to protect. We're going to play like we're going to attack and go get something.' And we're going to continue to attack."
» With injuries to Mark Clayton and Kelley Washington, the Ravens are giving more pass-catching opportunities to Demetrius Williams, who went from a promising rookie three years ago to a member of their scout team. In Sunday's rout of Chicago, he had four receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown. When the Ravens coaches constantly told Williams to "stay ready," he didn't ignore them and assume it was just something they were saying to keep him motivated for the unglamorous life of a backup. He should become increasingly important to the Ravens' playoff push.
They've got answers ...
» The Carolina Panthers, because right offensive tackle Geoff Schwartz was impressive in his first NFL start, which came against the Vikings ... who only happen to have one of the best defensive lines in the league. Schwartz was part of the effort that allowed Jonathan Stewart to become the first 100-yard rusher the Vikings allowed in 36 games.
» The New England Patriots, because even without injured Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, their defensive line was able to generally hold up vs. the Buffalo Bills. How well it can continue to hold up without them or with them at less than full health, particularly in the postseason, is another matter.
They've got questions ...
» The Seattle Seahawks, because things seem to be unraveling fast in the first season under coach Jim Mora. Is it realistic to think that a new general manager can bring about the dramatic repair that the team desperately needs? We'll see.
» The Baltimore Ravens, because after the season-ending knee injury that rookie Lardarius Webb suffered vs. Chicago, they're in the market for a starting cornerback. Good luck with that at this stage of the season. The Ravens have had incredibly bad luck at the position, losing another starter, Fabian Washington, to a season-ending knee injury in late November.
Four intriguing games for Week 16
» Denver at Philadelphia: As non-conference games go, this one has a whole lot to offer because it not only will impact each team's postseason status, but also influence the playoff races in the AFC and the NFC. The Broncos are reeling after a stunning loss vs. Oakland. Just when it seemed as if they had gotten their act together, they found a way to lose a game they had no business allowing to slip away. The Eagles, who find themselves in striking distance for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and are expected to have RB Brian Westbrook back from a concussion, are capable of trampling the Broncos on the ground.
» Baltimore at Pittsburgh: Remember these teams? Last January, they played for the AFC title. Now, they're playing for their postseason lives. Since a Week 13 loss at Green Bay, the Ravens have outscored two lousy opponents, 79-10. They edged the Steelers in Week 12, but quite possibly face a very different team this time. The Steelers have been revived by their Week 15 triumph over the Packers. Ben Roethlisberger will likely need to have another mammoth passing day to help off-set his defense's inability to keep Joe Flacco, who shredded the Bears, from having a huge passing day of his own.
» N.Y. Jets at Indianapolis: Yes, Rex Ryan, your Jets team is still very much alive for a playoff spot. And the outcome of this game is going to go a long way toward helping to determine whether you get one. There's a good chance you won't be seeing very much of the Colts' starters. That should be an opportunity to win a game you otherwise might have little or no chance of winning. But against an unbeaten opponent, it isn't advisable to take anything for granted. If nothing else, seeing if the Colts go to 15-0 makes this a compelling matchup.
» Dallas at Washington: After what could very well be a turning-point victory at New Orleans, the Cowboys are playing with a renewed sense of purpose. They're still very much in contention to win the NFC East, but must not allow the euphoria of what happened vs. the Saints to cause them to drop their guard. Watching the Redskins' pathetic showing vs. the Giants, it's hard to imagine that they'll put up much of a fight in this one, either. All the more reason the Cowboys must avoid looking past the Redskins and ahead to their season finale vs. the Eagles.
Top five teams
1. Indianapolis: If the Colts do end up at 16-0, it isn't likely going to be because they made a concerted effort to get there.
2. San Diego: Winning in Tennessee on a short week won't be easy, but the Chargers have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can meet pretty much any challenge.
3. New Orleans: It's official: The Saints can't win on Saturday. But they need to refocus quickly because they had been flirting with a loss for a couple of weeks before actually suffering one.
4. Philadelphia: Like the Chargers, the Eagles have taken on the look of a team that no one wants to face in the postseason.
5. Minnesota: Whatever is up with these guys, they'd better get it fixed -- and fast -- or there might not be a first-round bye in their future.
Top five offensive players
1. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh: Prolific and heroic, he made the defending Super Bowl champions relevant again.
2. Jerome Harrison, RB, Cleveland: Nice way to introduce yourself to Mike Holmgren, your new team president.
3. Miles Austin, WR, Dallas: He has done a tremendous job of helping to elevate the play of QB Tony Romo and the rest of the offense at absolutely the right time.
4. Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore: His four TD passes vs. Chicago is indicative of the sorry state of the Bears' defense, but it also says something about Flacco finding the form that he displayed early in the season. Now all he has to do is sustain it.
5. Steve Smith, WR, Carolina: New QB Matt Moore has done plenty to help Smith to return to prominence in the Panthers' offense.
Top five defensive players
1. Julius Peppers, DE, Carolina: His one sack vs. the Vikings doesn't sufficiently capture the impact he made in the game. He was such a major disruption to Minnesota's offense, he actually forced an offensive tackle out of the game ... and nearly did the same with the QB.
2. DeMarcus Ware, DE, Dallas: Despite missing a week of practice after a frightening neck injury, he managed to get two fumble-forcing sacks (the second of which sealed the outcome) vs. the Saints.
3. Tully Banta-Cain, LB, New England: Not only did he account for three of the Patriots' season-high six sacks, but he got them in the fourth quarter of a close win vs. Buffalo.
4. Domonique Foxworth, CB, Baltimore: He had two INTs vs. the Bears, but he easily could have had four.
5. Asante Samuel, CB, Philadelphia: He had an INT, a fumble recovery deep in Eagle territory, and four tackles -- which, for him, is a high total -- to help the Eagles beat the 49ers.
Top five coaches
1. Norv Turner, San Diego: Somehow, he got his team to match every bit of the considerable energy displayed by the Bengals, who were driven to win a game for their fallen teammate.
2. Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis: With nothing on the line and only two full days to prepare, he was able to get his team ready to play well enough to overcome a game effort by Jacksonville and put itself in position to be the last of the unbeatens -- a distinction they received two nights later.
3. John Fox, Carolina: He had a masterful defensive plan that simply outfoxed the Vikings
4. Tom Cable, Oakland: He refuses to let his team, or his job security, to run a fade route in the final weeks of the season.
5. Bill Belichick, New England: All signs pointed to his battered and stumbling Pats suffering another loss on the road. Instead, he got just enough out of them to enhance their shaky grasp on first place in the AFC East.