Week 16: Home not always kind to top seeds; Jets continue descent

Updated: December 21, 2008

David Butler II/US Presswire

The weather in New England was frightful, but Matt Cassel and the Patriots delighted their fans with a 47-7 blowout of the Cardinals. Cassel threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns as the Pats were never challenged by the reeling NFC West champions. ZOOM GALLERY: Top performances

Week 16 analysis: Safe at home?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans clinched the top seed in the AFC with their 31-14 victory over the Steelers. The Giants earned home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs by beating the Panthers 34-28 on Sunday night.

The question is whether home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is all that it's cracked up to be. Since 1975, 50 percent of the No. 1 seeds have made the Super Bowl, but recent years indicate home-field can be a trap. Since 2002, the 2003 Patriots are the only No. 1 seed to win the Super Bowl. Five times in the past six seasons, a No. 1 seed has lost in the Super Bowl, each time to a lower seed.

LenDale White and Michael Griffin

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Titans earned the No. 1 seed. Now comes the hard part: protecting their home turf in the playoffs.

Ask Titans safety Chris Hope. In 2004, he was a member of the 15-1 Steelers, and figured he was going to ride rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into the Super Bowl. Then the Patriots came to town and upset the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. Hope never forgot the experience and will use that story to try to make sure the Titans don't get too complacent now that they are top dogs in the AFC.

"It was tough,'' Hope said. "The year we lost in the AFC Championship Game, we were 15-1 and picked to win the Super Bowl. We didn't get it done and it just goes down as a magical year without the big goal. Home-field advantage is great, but it doesn't just make you win automatically.''

Hope said the problem is the bye week. Although it's great for the healing process, the week off takes the top seed away from the speed and intensity of playoff football.

"Other teams get an advantage because they are playing and you are coming off that bye,'' he said. "The key is getting in a groove early in that first playoff game after the bye.''

Recent results indicate home teams are losing their edge. During the first eight weeks of the season, home teams won 63.8 percent of the games, the second-best percentage since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. (The best was in 1985 at 64.3.) Since then, the road team has a 63-59-1 record.

On Sunday, several big wins came from the road team. The Chargers kept their playoff hopes alive by beating the Tampa Bay Bucs 41-24 at Raymond James Stadium. The Falcons clinched a playoff berth by beating the Vikings 24-17 in the Metrodome. The Broncos could have cost themselves a playoff spot by losing to the Bills 30-23 at home. The Dolphins rallied to beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium and take over first place in the AFC East.

The Steelers will have extra incentive if they return to Tennessee for the AFC title game because Keith Bulluck and others stomped on a Terrible Towel, one of Pittsburgh's cherished fan items.

"Hopefully, if we do see them again we can right the wrong and not allow them to step on that towel,'' Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "We won't forget it.''

Five things I learned in Week 16

1. Buyer's remorse?
Jets owner Woody Johnson didn't spend $152.5 million in the offseason to win the Pro Bowl and not make the playoffs. Sunday's 13-3 loss to the Seahawks will have to make him wonder what general manager Mike Tannenbaum and coach Eric Mangini sold him on. Brett Favre was acquired to beat the Seahawks on the road in the snow. He didn't. In recent weeks, Favre and the Jets haven't delivered while former Jets quarterback Chad Pennington has. In fact, Favre has aged before our eyes in the past month. He's thrown six interceptions and only one touchdown in the past four games -- three of them losses. He has been sacked nine times. His quarterback rating over the past four games has been going down like the temperature -- 60.9, 60.8, 61.4 and 48.7 in Seattle. Favre leads the league with 19 interceptions, while Pennington is setting league standards for protecting the ball.

Offseason acquisitions Favre, Kris Jenkins and Alan Faneca are three of the Jets' seven Pro Bowlers. Jenkins has worn down and teams are running on the Jets. The team looks old, and Pennington could put the Jets out of their misery next Sunday in the Meadowlands and officially knock them out of the playoffs.

Sunday's loss dropped the Jets to third in the AFC East. Even if they beat the Dolphins, they would lose the division title if the Patriots beat Buffalo. The Jets probably could have reached 9-6 with Pennington at the helm. Mangini didn't help his job security by electing to punt after a delay of game penalty wiped out a 45-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. The Jets needed points, not field position.

2. Jackson not cutting it
Coach Brad Childress' infatuation with QB Tarvaris Jackson once again bit the Vikings, although the wound isn't fatal. Jackson proved he's not ready for prime time in Minnesota's 24-17 loss to the Falcons. Although Jackson was 22-of-36 for 233 yards with no interceptions, he had three fumbles and lost two. That doesn't count the shotgun snap that Matt Birk sailed over his head for what turned out to be a 22-yard loss. Jackson might be the quarterback of the future, but he's jeopardizing the Vikings' current playoff push. If the Vikings lose to the Giants in Week 17 and the Bears win their last two games, Minnesota will be 9-7 and watching highlights of Jackson throwing rollout screens to Visanthe Shiancoe instead of going to the playoffs.

Childress seems to cling to the fact that Jackson was 8-4 as a starter last year. With MVP candidate Adrian Peterson in the backfield, any quarterback with a pulse can excel. Gus Frerotte was contemplating retirement before joining the Vikings as a backup. He was 8-3 as a starter before back problems forced him out of the lineup. Jackson is mobile, but he's not consistently accurate enough to beat playoff-caliber teams.

3. Steelers straying from winning formula
Because QB Ben Roethlisberger is strong in the pocket and able to make plays, the Steelers have gotten away from their power running game. Willie Parker mentioned that a couple of weeks ago and was called out by coach Mike Tomlin for being critical. But he was right. In cold weather, the Steelers have to show they can run the ball. The Titans rushed for 117 yards on 31 carries in Sunday's 31-14 victory over the Steelers. Although those numbers might be modest, they were significant. Tennessee's running attack wore down the Steelers' defense enough for the Titans to become the first team to put up more than 300 yards of offense on Pittsburgh this season.

"Obviously, the Steelers are a great run defense,'' Titans quarterback Kerry Collins said. "It's always important for us. We are always striving to be able to run the ball and run the ball effectively. I felt like we had the belief that we could run the ball under any circumstance.''

The Steelers rushed for only 71 yards on 24 carries against a Titans defensive line that didn't have Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch. Over the past three weeks, no Steelers running back has gained more than 47 yards in a game. Those games were against Dallas, Baltimore and Tennessee, but the Steelers need to be like the Titans, who try to run under any circumstance.

4. Western weaklings
The NFL has to live with the fact that the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals are currently No. 4 playoff seeds only because the league mandates somebody has to represent the league's two West divisions.

Denver's 30-23 home loss to the Bills may be a savior of sorts. The resurgent Chargers could eliminate the Broncos in Week 17. At least the Chargers looked good in beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 41-24 in Tampa. The Broncos blew a 13-3 lead to a Bills offense that had been missing in action for months. Because the Broncos lack a running game, they can't protect their defense. The Broncos give up 26.4 points a game. They've started as many as five rookies on defense. From the second quarter to the fourth quarter Sunday, the Broncos' defense gave up three touchdowns and two field goals in five consecutive possessions.

When they have the lead, the Broncos can't eat up the clock or wear down a defense. They had 181 rushing yards against Buffalo, but wide receiver Eddie Royal and quarterback Jay Cutler combined for 101 of those yards. Coach Mike Shanahan has gone through a half-dozen running backs this season, and will have to wait until next year to restock.

As for the NFC West champion Cardinals, there is no hope they will go away until the first round of the playoffs. Their 47-7 loss to the Patriots was just another embarrassment. The Cards have fallen behind by 21 points in the first quarter in three of the past four games. Their defense has given up 26.6 points a game. Kurt Warner's 30-yard performance in Foxborough might have cost him the MVP to Peyton Manning or Adrian Peterson.

5. Cowboys get assists
How 'bout them Cowboys? As much as you might like to eliminate the Cowboys from the playoff race, they're still alive because of the Bucs' loss to the Chargers and the Eagles' 10-3 loss to the Redskins. What the Eagles and Bucs have in common are failures in the red zone. The Bucs came into Sunday's game with only 18 touchdowns in 51 trips into the red zone.

The Eagles' failures in goal-line and short-yardage situations have hurt them all season. It has ownership weighing the decision to keep quarterback Donovan McNabb or make a change. With the Falcons now in the playoffs, the scramble for the last wild-card spot in the NFC is now controlled by the Cowboys. The Eagles still have a chance if they can beat the Cowboys in Week 17 and few other things happen. How those things unfold will determine the fate of Dallas coach Wade Phillips and others fighting for that last spot.


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John Clayton's game balls


• Offense: Many believe Philip Rivers was the biggest Pro Bowl snub. Imagine what the Rivers backers think now. Rivers was deadly accurate in carving up the struggling Bucs' defense. He completed 21 of 31 passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns in San Diego's 41-24 victory. He entered the week as the league's leading passer and now has 3,802 passing yards and 32 touchdowns. Even better, he has a chance to put the Chargers into the playoffs if he beats the Broncos in Week 17.

Rivers started to work his magic early with screens and quick passes. That opened things up for rifle-like passes to wide receiver Vincent Jackson and big throws across the middle to tight end Antonio Gates.


• Defense: With the cold weather and even snow in some areas, it was an old-style football day of tacking and hard hitting. Keith Bulluck's 13-tackle performance in Tennessee's 31-14 victory over the Steelers earned him the defensive game ball. The Titans wanted to make a statement, and Bulluck was the team's voice on the field. Bulluck was all over the field; he had two tackles for losses, two passes defensed and one forced fumble.

"The Steelers come out and make a lot of plays,'' Bulluck said. "They force a lot of turnovers. They actually put their offense in great position to score points and win games. I think that it was our challenge as a defense to make more plays than their defense to give our offense opportunities because really we have been playing similar defense.''

Complicating matters for the Titans were injuries to defensive linemen Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch. Led by Jason Jones, the defensive line stepped up to fill the void, but the linebackers, particularly Bulluck, stepped up even more. If the Steelers meet the Titans again in the AFC Championship Game, expect Bulluck to be a target of the Steelers and Steelers fans. He stomped on a Terrible Towel before heading onto the field. "Anybody that's going to come through here in the playoffs, we plan to stomp them out,'' he said. "That has to be our stand.''


• Special teams: Those who wondered if Clifton Smith deserved to go to the Pro Bowl as a returner had their thoughts eased Sunday. Smith outdueled Darren Sproles in an impressive return battle. Sproles had 45 yards on two punt returns and 127 more on four kickoff returns, including a 44-yarder. Smith had 205 yards on seven kickoff returns, including a 72-yarder, for a 29.3-yard average. He also had an 8-yard punt return, giving him 213 return yards for the day.

ESPN video

Loose ends

• Infirmary report: Saints TE Jeremy Shockey injured his right ankle against the Lions. Bills RB Marshawn Lynch left the game against the Broncos with a shoulder injury.

• Week 16 Studs & Duds: Matt Cassel had another big game for the Patriots. Browns QB Ken Dorsey was dreadful against the Bengals.

• Fantasy: The TRUM blog: Beware for vultures

• Experts' picks: How did we do?
Sunday Countdown | ESPN.com

• NFL Blog Network

Week 16 rundown

• Cincinnati 14, Cleveland 0
Poor Romeo Crennel. It would be almost impossible for any coach to save his job with Ken Dorsey playing quarterback. Photos

• New Orleans 42, Detroit 7
It's T-minus one and counting for the Lions. Only a Week 17 game against the Packers separates Detroit from infamy. Photos

•  Tennessee 31, Pittsburgh 14
The road to the Super Bowl officially goes through Tennessee. Maybe the Titans didn't peak too early after all. Photos

•  Miami 38, Kansas City 31
Chad Pennington for MVP? No matter what happens in Week 17, the Dolphins' QB will likely receive some votes. Photos

•  San Francisco 17, St. Louis 16
Interim coach Mike Singletary has clearly made a big difference in San Francisco. Has he done enough to get a permanent gig? Photos

•  New England 47, Arizona 7
Cardinal sin? The Cards won the NFC West, but that doesn't mean they deserve a playoff berth. Photos

•  San Diego 41, Tampa Bay 24
The return of QB Jeff Garcia didn't translate into a victory for the Bucs, who have lost three straight. Photos

•  Buffalo 30, Denver 23
Before Chargers coach Norv Turner starts devising a game plan for Week 17, he'll probably send a Christmas card to Dick Jauron and the Bills. Photos

•  Oakland 27, Houston 16
The Texans have been hot of late, but their bid for the first-ever winning season in franchise history was swallowed up in the Black Hole. Photos

•  Seattle 13, N.Y. Jets 3
The Seahawks made Mike Holmgren a winner in his Seattle finale. They also delivered a crushing blow to the Jets' playoff hopes. Photos

•  Atlanta 24, Minnesota 17
The Falcons hit rock bottom in 2007. Now they're in the playoffs. Such a quick turnaround didn't seem possible after the Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino debacles. Photos

• Washington 10, Philadelphia 3
How do you beat the Eagles? Keep Brian Westbrook out of the end zone. Sometimes it's just that simple. Photos

• N.Y. Giants 34, Carolina 28 (OT)
One of the best games of the season. Will we see an encore performance in the NFC Championship Game? Photos

• Monday Night Football: Green Bay at Chicago (ESPN, 8:30 ET)
The Bears will try to keep their playoff hopes alive when they host the Packers. Can Green Bay end its recent skid and emerge as a spoiler in 2008's last MNF game? Intel | Insider Scouts

• Fantasy: Rodgers' quiet progress | Preview
• Blog: Revisiting beatdown | FB Outsiders
• Play animations | EA sim | MNF Surround

-- ESPN.com

Looking ahead

An early look at next weekend's biggest games:

• Miami (10-5) at N.Y. Jets (9-6): Can the Dolphins complete their miraculous turnaround and clinch the AFC East?

• Dallas (9-6) at Philadelphia (8-6-1): Will the last NFC wild-card spot go to one of these two teams?

• Denver (8-7) at San Diego (7-8): The winner takes the AFC West title.

• Week 17 schedule