Steelers and Patriots heading in wrong direction down the stretch

Thirteen is not known to be a lucky number, and Week 13 certainly was not lucky for a number of teams. Of course, luck is only part of the equation in the NFL.

Here are six things that caught my attention:

1. Thirteen isn't lucky

The Steelers were supposed to "unleash hell" on the rest of their opponents after last week's loss to Baltimore, which extended their losing streak to three games. Well, I thought there would be hell to pay for the visiting Raiders, but hell turned out to be a fourth consecutive losing performance by the Steelers.

Weekend recap

While the Steelers and Patriots stumbled again, the undefeated Saints and Colts continued their road to perfection. Bucky Brooks breaks down all of Sunday's action. More ...

The loss of Troy Polamalu is much worse than I thought it would be -- and if the rumors that his season may be over are true, then so is the Steelers' season.

The Patriots are still in the driver's seat in the AFC East, but a third loss in the last four weeks begs the question: What happened to New England's defense? When Chad Henne throws 53 passes for 335 yards and two scores -- and New England gets one sack -- that spells trouble. The Patriots could sure use Richard Seymour, whom they traded to the Raiders at the start of the season. Seymour led the Patriots with eight sacks last season. This season, New England has only 20 sacks, tied with St. Louis for fourth fewest in the NFL.

2. Did you know…

» Only one team was able to rush for more than 100 yards and not give up a sack on its way to victory. Arizona Cardinals offensive line coach Russ Grimm did a nice job without his starting left tackle, Mike Gandy, against the best pass rushing defensive line in the NFL. The Vikings came into the game with 31.5 sacks from the front four, and 40 sacks overall. Minnesota's defense is also stout against the run, but the Cardinals rushed for 113 yards.

» The Texans still haven't won a game since they lost tight end Owen Daniels. The team averages 25 points a game with Daniels and 21 points without him.

» The Steelers' 27-24 loss to the Raiders is their fifth three-point loss of the season. The only other Steelers loss this season was 18-12 against the Bengals. One field goal per game could be the difference between Pittsburgh being 11-1, instead of 6-6.

On NFL Replay
NFL Replay will re-air the New Orleans Saints' 33-30 overtime win over the Washington  Redskins on Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 9:30 p.m. ET.

3. Five QBs getting hot

With a month to go in the regular season, a number of teams really need to see significant improvement in their quarterback play, and Week 13 was a very good sign that the arrow is pointed up.

Alex Smith of the 49ers, Jason Campbell of the Redskins and even Brady Quinn of the Browns played well in losing efforts. As club executives gather information to make an intelligent business decision in the offseason, this week helps the cause of those three quarterbacks.

Two other signal callers really impressed me in winning efforts: Bruce Gradkowski and Chad Henne. The Raiders and Dolphins were supposed to be on the losing end of their Week 13 games, but both passers threw for more than 300 yards and looked like guys you can build a team around.

4. Raiders win with the 'other' guys

Oakland has paid a ton of money to JaMarcus Russell, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Darren McFadden -- all high first-round picks over the past three years -- but their combined effort in Sunday's road win over the Steelers was nine carries for 25 yards by McFadden.

The stars of the game were three players being paid a lot less money, as Gradkowski (20 for 33, 308 yards, three TDs), running back Justin Fargas (17 touches, 76 yards), and rookie wide receiver Louis Murphy (four receptions, 128 yards, two scores) delivered winning performances.

It doesn't look like Russell, McFadden and Heyward-Bey are the next coming of Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith as a set of triplets.

5. Going on fourth

The decision of what to do on fourth down is eminently debatable. The statistical research says you should go for it on fourth down more often, and coaches appear to be listening. Teams went for it on fourth down 35 times this weekend and converted 16 times. A 45.7 percent success rate isn't bad. The Dolphins converted on two of three fourth downs in their win over the Patriots.

For the first 12 weeks of the season, teams' average success rate on all fourth downs is 50 percent. On an average weekend of games, teams convert 15 of 31 attempts. It looks like the attempts are growing a bit.

6. Wildcat's not going away, but ...

The Eagles scored Sunday using the Wildcat with Michael Vick. The Browns used it in the fourth quarter with Joshua Cribbs driving the team down the field and setting up a touchdown. The Dolphins are still the best Wildcat team, but rookie Pat White in the package just isn't as effective as Ronnie Brown was or Ricky Williams can be when he takes the snap. White struggled in Week 13 and it felt as if his few reps did little more than take away some of the momentum the base offense created.

Miami has run 95 Wildcat plays this year for 450 yards and 27 first downs. The rest of the league has used some form of the Wildcat about 150 plays. I have been tracking the Wildcat package the same way I track the no-huddle, shotgun and some other specific personnel groups. The Wildcat peaked a few weeks ago when it averaged close to 30 plays per weekend. In recent weeks, however, it has shrunk into the low teens.

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