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Saints showing signs that quick playoff exit is possible

Gerald Herbert / Associated Press
Cadillac Williams rushed for 129 yards in the Buccaneers' shocking win in the Superdome.
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Buccaneers 20, Saints 17 (OT)
After losing their second consecutive game, the Saints are showing troubling signs heading into the postseason. While their offense remains one of the most prolific units in the league, the defense and special teams have started to fall off dramatically in recent weeks. New Orleans has problems defending the run and its inability to stop the power game allows teams to control the tempo. The Buccaneers relied on the ground game to rally from a 17-0 deficit early in the contest. The special teams woes prevented the Saints from sealing the victory in the fourth quarter. Micheal Spurlock's 77-yard punt return for a touchdown tied the game for Tampa Bay, and Garrett Hartley's miss on a 37-yard field goal attempt kept New Orleans from winning at the end of regulation. After running out to a 13-0 mark, problems in two key phases may lead to a quick exit for the Saints.

Packers 48, Seahawks 10
After falling apart against the Steelers last week, the Packers defense rebounded with a stellar effort. The pass defense, in particular, looked vastly improved after Green Bay spent a week shoring up its coverage in practice. Led by Atari Bigby's two interceptions, the Packers picked off four Matt Hasselbeck passes and completely disrupted the rhythm of the passing game. The airtight coverage allowed defensive coordinator Dom Capers to harass the veteran quarterback with a host of five-man pressures from multiple angles. The effective use of blitz and coverage combined with a better effort from the secondary allowed the Packers to get back on track after a tough loss in Pittsburgh.

Jets 29, Colts 15
Colts fans are surely upset at Jim Caldwell's decision to rest players during the second half, but the long-term plan for winning a Super Bowl deservedly took priority over a quest for an unbeaten season. While a 16-0 mark would have represented history for the franchise, the potential loss of a key player prior to the playoffs would ensure a brief postseason stay. Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Dwight Freeney are too valuable to be lost during a game that doesn't alter the team's standing in the playoffs, so the priority must be placed on ensuring their health. Although a case can be made for maintaining momentum, the fact that the Colts' starters played well into the second half should be enough to sustain rhythm. Even though the decision to pull the starters appears rooted in logic, the Colts face the prospect of being second-guessed if they fail to advance deep into the playoffs.

Falcons 31, Bills 3
The Bills continue to sputter regardless of the signal caller. The Brian Brohm-led offense failed to score a touchdown and produced just 178 yards of total offense. Brohm, who was making his first career start, struggled from the outset and passed for only 146 yards and two interceptions. He was woefully inaccurate on his deep throws and his inability to connect with Terrell Owens or Lee Evans on vertical routes allowed the Falcons to suffocate Buffalo's short passing game. In addition, the Bills couldn't generate positive production on the ground. Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch combined for only 42 rushing yards, which left the coaching staff with few options against the Falcons' opportunistic defense.

Bengals 17, Chiefs 10
The Bengals' defense has flown under the radar for most of the season, but the unit has been the key to Cincinnati's run to the AFC North title. Mike Zimmer's troops have been outstanding at generating turnovers, and their ability to come up with timely plays proved critical against the Chiefs. The secondary, in particular, delivered two gems with Leon Hall and Chinedum Ndukwe picking off passes at big moments. In addition, the unit blanketed Kansas City's receivers and forced Matt Cassel to repeatedly settle for check downs. With the Chiefs unable to generate explosive plays (completions over 20 yards) in the passing game, Cincinnati's defense kept the game under control until the offense found a rhythm in the late stages of the contest.

Browns 23, Raiders 9
It remains to be seen whether Eric Mangini will remain as the coach in Cleveland, but he may have discovered a franchise runner for the Browns in Jerome Harrison. For the second consecutive week, Harrison put up big numbers and single-handedly carried the offense. While most would point to his 148 rushing yards as his most impressive contribution, it was the fact that he toted the rock 39 times that keyed the victory. Harrison's ability to handle a heavy workload allowed the Browns to control the clock and muster another win without a significant contribution from the passing game.

Texans 27, Dolphins 20
As a disciple of the West Coast offense, Gary Kubiak is prone to script Houston's first 12-15 plays to get the offense into a rhythm. Based on the Texans' sensational opening half against the Dolphins, Kubiak put together an outstanding game plan. Matt Schaub responded particularly well, as he opened the game completing 14 of his first 18 passes and led the Texans to scores on each of their first five drives. Kubiak included an assortment of downfield shots to Andre Johnson and Jacoby Jones, which loosened up Miami's tight man coverage. With the Dolphins forced to respect the deep pass, Schaub comfortably distributed the ball underneath coverage and kept the Texans ahead of the chains. The Texans also mixed in enough runs to Arian Foster to maintain balance and rhythm. While most coaches hope for fast starts, the Texans' sizzling first half was the result of Kubiak crafting a perfect script.

Steelers 23, Ravens 20
The Ravens' miscues cost them dearly against the Steelers. Baltimore committed 11 penalties for 113 yards, which included numerous fouls that extended drives for Pittsburgh. The bonus plays gave Ben Roethlisberger additional opportunities to attack an injury-ravaged secondary and allowed the Steelers to score points on drives that should've ended on the cusp of the red zone. Aside from the mental errors, the Ravens hurt themselves with dropped passes. Throw in two flags that negated would-be touchdowns and the lack of discipline not only cost the Ravens a win, but put their postseason plans in jeopardy.

Panthers 41, Giants 9
The insertion of Matt Moore in the lineup has undoubtedly allowed the Panthers to rediscover their offensive identity. Carolina has long had a reputation for a smash-mouth ground game complemented by an explosive vertical attack. However, the erratic play of Jake Delhomme kept the Panthers from utilizing the game plan. In four starts, Moore has proven to be a more efficient game manager, but can still push the ball downfield to give the Panthers an explosive element. With Jonathan Stewart enjoying an outstanding day against the Giants, Moore repeatedly riddled their secondary on an assortment of intermediate and deep throws off play-action. The combination of power runs and play-action tosses kept the Giants on their heels and led the Panthers to one of their best offensive showings this season.

Patriots 35, Jaguars 7
The Randy Moss controversy from a few weeks ago may have awakened a dormant offense. The Patriots were unquestionably in rhythm against the Jaguars, as the unit rolled up 464 yards of offense and scored 35 points. Although Wes Welker acted as the catalyst for the offense with 13 receptions, it was Moss' big-play production that sparked the unit. Moss finished with only four receptions, but three of his grabs resulted in touchdowns. In getting the offense back on track, Tom Brady deserves credit for hitting his playmakers in their sweet spots. For Welker, that means catching balls on short crossers and option routes to take advantage of his exceptional quickness in space. In getting Moss more involved, the Patriots had him run more vertical routes near the goal line that utilized his athleticism in jump-ball situations. The Patriots' offense is beginning to display the explosiveness that most anticipated.

Cardinals 31, Rams 10
The Cardinals are beginning to show more balance on offense, and the surprising diversity is making the unit difficult to stop. While most teams are intent on stopping Kurt Warner and the tandem of Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, the emergence of the running game has been an effective counter. Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower have become an effective one-two punch, and Arizona has increasingly relied on them to get in an offensive rhythm. Against the Rams, Wells and Hightower combined for 100 rushing yards on 27 carries behind an assortment of power runs between the tackles. In addition, the Cardinals have morphed their one-back formation into a two-back set by using extra tight ends as lead blockers off an assortment of motions. The increased use of run-heavy personnel has given the Cardinals another dimension that could serve them well as they make another postseason run.

49ers 20, Lions 6
The 49ers' opportunistic defense keyed the win over the Lions. The unit forced six turnovers and repeatedly came up with critical plays to stop drives. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky deftly mixed in conventional coverage with an assortment of blitz pressures to keep Drew Stanton uncomfortable in the pocket. The constantly changing looks resulted in numerous mistakes from the young quarterback, including three interceptions and a fumble. Although San Francisco's offense failed to capitalize on most of Detroit's miscues, the defense's penchant for creating takeaways led the 49ers to their seventh win.

Eagles 30, Broncos 27
The Eagles might be the hottest team in the NFC, and their explosive offense is keying the run. Donovan McNabb and Co. put defenses in a quandary by opening up formations to get their playmakers favorable matchups in space. DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Brian Westbrook excel in the open field, and the increased use of spread sets naturally creates space for them underneath coverage. In addition to using more wide-open formations, the Eagles have started to frequently operate at a no-huddle tempo to keep defenses from substituting personnel. The combination allowed the Eagles to quickly get into rhythm while keeping the Broncos' defense on its heels.

Cowboys 17, Redskins 0
Wade Phillips’ aggressive defensive game plan rendered the Redskins offense punchless. Phillips utilized a series of five-man pressures to batter Jason Campbell in the pocket. The Cowboys routinely sent rushers from multiple angles to disrupt the Redskins’ blocking schemes, and their ability to put big hits on the quarterback led Campbell to repeatedly toss errant passes. Although the stat sheet will reveal that the Cowboys recorded three sacks, it was the steady pounding of Campbell that prevented the Redskins from mounting a serious scoring threat. If the Cowboys can continue to get steady pressure on their future opponents, they will make a deep run for the first time in more than a decade.

 

Seven from Sunday

A look at seven statistical highlights from games played during the 16th week of the 2009 season.

» Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning threw for 192 yards in the Colts' 29-15 loss against the New York Jets. Manning (50,033) joined Brett Favre (68,692), and Pro Football Hall of Famers Dan Marino (61,361) and John Elway (51,475) as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to reach 50,000 career passing yards. Manning also became the fastest to reach the 50,000-yard mark, accomplishing the feat in 191 career games (Marino, 193).

» Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner threw two touchdown passes in the Cardinals' 31-10 victory over St. Louis. Warner, who threw 102 TDs with the Rams, now has 100 touchdown passes with the Cardinals and joined Pro Football Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton as the only players in NFL history with at least 100 touchdown passes with two teams.

» Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers passed for 237 yards in the Packers' 48-10 win over Seattle. Rodgers, who had 4,038 yards last year, has passed for 4,199 yards this season and is the first player in NFL history to throw for at least 4,000 yards in each of the first two seasons in which he started a game.

» Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson had 71 receiving yards in the Texans' 27-20 victory over Miami. Johnson leads the NFL with 1,504 receiving yards this season. Johnson, who had an NFL-best 1,575 receiving yards last year, joined Marvin Harrison (2001-02) as the only players in NFL history to record at least 1,500 receiving yards in consecutive seasons.

» New York Jets kick returner Brad Smith had a 106-yard kickoff-return touchdown in the Jets' 29-15 win at Indianapolis, tied for the second-longest kickoff return in NFL history. New England's Ellis Hobbs holds the NFL record with a 108-yard return (Sept. 9, 2007) and three others -- Al Carmichael (Oct. 7, 1956), Noland Smith (Dec. 17, 1967) and Roy Green (Oct. 21, 1979) -- have had 106-yard returns.

» New England quarterback Tom Brady passed for 267 yards and four touchdowns in the Patriots' 35-7 win over Jacksonville at Gillette Stadium. With the win, Brady (20) tied Pro Football Hall of Famer Bob Griese and Randall Cunningham for the third-most consecutive home wins as a starting quarterback since 1970. He also became the fifth quarterback to win 20 or more consecutive home games since 1970.

» Denver wide receiver Brandon Marshall had eight receptions in the Broncos' 30-27 loss at Philadelphia. Marshall, who has 101 catches this season, joined Marvin Harrison (4), Jerry Rice (3), Herman Moore (3) and Wes Welker (3) as the only players to have 100 receptions in at least three consecutive seasons.

Monday night

Vikings at Bears: The homefield hopes of Brett Favre and the Vikings were given new life after the Saints' loss on Sunday. Can Minnesota get its season back on track when it visits Chicago?
» Game preview

Fantasy studs

Who was this week's best fantasy player? Was it Donovan McNabb, who shined during fantasy football's championship week? What about Tom Brady? Or, was it Jonathan Stewart? Check out all of Michael Fabiano's nominees and cast your vote.
» Vote for Week 16 fantasy stud

Photos

The NFL delivered more exciting games and performances this weekend, including Pittsburgh defeating division rival Baltimore. Check out the memorable moments from Week 16.

» Fans of the NFL
» NFL cheerleaders during Week 16
» Braving the weather
» NFL.com photo gallery archives

Weekly Countdown

NFL Weekly Countdown, which airs each Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. ET on NFL Network, lets fans program the show. Check out the 15 nominations for the best performances, and then rank in the order you want to see those on the show. Come back Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. to see the results.

Top 15 moments of Week 16:

» Bengals clinch division | Vote
» Brady nearly perfect | Vote
» Packers run to win | Vote
» Packers D stuffs 'Hawks | Vote
» Harrison keeps on running | Vote
» Jets knock off unbeaten Colts | Vote
» Eagles edge Broncos | Vote
» Chargers get No. 2 seed | Vote
» Texans keep hopes alive | Vote
» Stewart runs over Giants | Vote
» Warner spreads the wealth | Vote
» Jags can't stop Moss, Welker | Vote
» Falcons beat up Bills | Vote
» Cadillac drives Bucs' upset | Vote
» Steelers stuff Ravens | Vote

» Vote: Week 16's top performances


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