The NFL got what it wanted, a Week 16 with playoff significance around the country. No teams resting players, and playoff intrigue still alive as we head into the last Sunday of the regular season.
Let's get down to business.
1. The Patriot machine
With each passing week, it becomes clearer that the Patriots are the most impressive franchise in the league. It is eight weeks in a row now that Tom Brady has thrown at least two touchdown passes. He hasn't thrown an interception in an NFL record 319 pass attempts. It's been seven straight games where the team has put up at least 30 points and not turned the ball over. Blitzing Brady doesn't work; sacking him has little impact on the outcome of the game.
Yet another accomplishment
Brady threw for only 140 yards against the Bills but had three touchdowns, with the longest completion going 23 yards. No receiver was targeted more than seven times. In the first five offensive drives, New England had three touchdowns and a field goal. Like every other team that has played the Patriots during this streak, the Bills were reminded that every mistake against the Patriots costs dearly. The first three turnovers by the Bills were immediately parlayed into 17 points in 19 plays.
New England leads the NFL with a plus-27 turnover ratio, which is unheard of. Consider this: The next best ratio is plus-14. To beat the Patriots right now, you might have to play a perfect game.
2. Check out this ratio
Their teams have a combined 34-11 record and they have thrown 88 touchdowns to 18 interceptions. Joe Flacco, Matt Cassel and Brady really know how to take care of the football and keep it out of the hands of the opponents. Meanwhile, I had to watch another painful performance by Eli Manning this week as he added to his turnover woes and now has 24 interceptions. That's six more than Flacco, Cassel and Brady combined. Three of those Manning interceptions led to 21 points against the Packers.
3. Non-contenders finish strong
Some might think that once teams are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, they fold the tent and go home. That was not the case for two teams this weekend; in fact, I saw some real hope and momentum building toward 2011. The Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos have discovered a silver lining to an otherwise poor season.
The Lions won their third game in a row and got their second road win in two weeks with different backup quarterbacks. Without Matthew Stafford and its defensive quarterback, safety Louis Delmas, this feisty team took the lead three times and finally put the Dolphins away. Jim Schwartz will not let his young group hang on injury excuses and I could see him personally turn the tide when his team was down by 10 points in the fourth quarter. He would not let a losing mentality creep into the sidelines, and the Lions scored 17 fourth-quarter points for the win.
The Broncos have had a downright ugly season with Josh McDaniels being fired and never getting a chance to coach Tim Tebow, the quarterback he traded up for in the draft. Well, Tebow came to play this weekend in only his second career start, and maybe McDaniels was fired too soon. McDaniels deserved the chance to coach the guy other people said couldn't make the transition from college to the pros. Tebow threw for 308 yards and a touchdown and ran for a score as well. He made deep-out throws, skinny-post routes and connected on four throws of more than 20 yards. I was most impressed that when the Broncos were down 17-0 at halftime and people were talking about the fact that the Broncos were never shutout at home, Tebow fought back -- especially in the fourth quarter, when he led his team on two drives that produced 24 plays, 150 yards, two touchdowns and consumed over 11 minutes.
4. Out with old, in with new
Somewhere along the way, we all built up a tolerance for the antics of a few NFL wide receivers that were productive, but also had baggage. For years, it seemed like we all were subjected to the "receiver divas." In the past few weeks, though, we have all witnessed the reality of Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. Truth is, the teams that have employed these three have all discovered -- particularly this weekend -- that they don't need the old stars to move the ball and win. When I talk with Titans coach Jeff Fisher, he sounds like he's describing an assistant coach when he discusses what Moss does for the team. Moss truly is a backup for the Titans and his main role is to mentor their young receivers. He will not be back in Tennessee for real money.
As for Owens and Ochocinco, the Bengals never looked better on offense this season until both of them were on the sidelines. As Marvin Lewis said early last week, "Carson Palmer is really enjoying working with the young receivers." Translation: Palmer has young fast guys who are productive without the headaches. As Bill Cowher told me while watching the Bengals knock off the Chargers on Sunday, "I think this is the first time this season I saw Carson Palmer with a smile on his face." Young receivers like Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell had been in the shadows of Owens and Ochocinco, but in Week 16 they combined for 10 receptions, 211 yards and two touchdowns.
I have a feeling all three older stars got a dose of reality this weekend and probably face another reality heading into 2011: Unless they want to work for a lot less money next season, it could be over. It's not the talent issue as much as it is a team issue.
Every week, we see some decisions that either leave you wondering what the thinking was behind the move or how great of a call it really was. The Peyton Manning naked bootleg was a stroke of genius. No longer will the backside pursuit crash down on the short-yardage run game with Manning threatening the flank.
On the other side, the 49ers' quarterback decisions are just too painful to keep up with and the outburst between Troy Smith and Mike Singletary was tough to watch and likely played a part in Singletary being fired. ... The Jets' decision to go for it on a fourth-and-3 situation in the third quarter, up 24-17, raised some eyebrows. The Bears scored on the first play after taking over on downs. That questionable call will be covered up by the fact that the Jets earned a playoff spot despite the loss.
6. Lower the price
I don't care what teams publish as attendance at NFL games, there were way too many empty seats this weekend. The average fan simply can't afford to go to a game and I'm starting to think the clubs must get into the reality business and lower ticket prices -- or be prepared to play to half-filled stadiums. I'm not here to name names, but it was embarrassing to see upper decks half-empty and even seats on the 50-yard line unused. The players need to look at the stadiums they play in and also realize that, unless there is a radical change, they too will suffer financially. People can't afford to go to games, can't appreciate all the talk about how much money the players want, or see any logic in owners wanting to expand to 18 games. Let's stop thinking about the NFL machine and look at the empty seats and find a solution.