It’s getting even wilder in the Wild, Wild (AFC and NFC) West
While a brutal snowstorm moved east Sunday, popping the bubble of Minnesota’s Metrodome and turning the New England-Chicago game into blizzard ball, it was in the West — the cloudless West, mind you — where things got really nasty.
The visibility was so bad on the Left Coast that you couldn’t see the handoff in front of your face.
Sure, it was a beautiful day in California. But the playoff picture in these parts is hopelessly murky.
Consider the AFC West: San Diego, fighting for its postseason life, blew out first-place Kansas City, 31-0, and got a big boost from Oakland losing at Jacksonville.
“We can’t lose, and we know that,” said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, whose 7-6 team moved to within a game of first place with three weeks remaining. “We can’t look to January, because there’s no guarantee we’re going to get there. But it’s playoff football from here on out.”
Things are just as crazy in the NFC West, where Seattle and St. Louis began the day tied for first at 6-6, two games ahead of San Francisco. But the situation got a lot more snug after the Rams lost at New Orleans and the 49ers crushed the Seahawks, 40-21.
Suddenly, the 49ers are in the thick of that race, and there’s an increased likelihood that the NFC West will be the first division in NFL history to send a losing team to the playoffs. Two 8-8 teams have reached the postseason.
Meanwhile, in places where the skies were considerably less clear, the playoff picture is starting to come into focus. New England, Pittsburgh and Atlanta all won convincingly Sunday, stepping ever closer to first-round playoff byes.
Whereas the Steelers and Falcons beat up on last-place teams — Cincinnati and Carolina, respectively — the Patriots stunned the streaking Bears, 36-7.
Chicago, which had won five in a row, saw its third-ranked defense picked apart by Tom Brady, who continued his march toward a second most-valuable-player award. Brady, coming off consecutive four-touchdown performances, threw for 369 yards and two touchdowns, going without an interception for an eighth straight game.
“We got our butts kicked,” Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “They are the best team in the NFL … They came in here on our field, our weather, and just pounded us. We couldn’t stop them. They scored 33 points in the first half, and I don’t know if they let up in the second half or what, but we just couldn’t do much.”
There was a bit of solace to be found for the Bears if they looked around the league. Green Bay was stunned by Detroit, 7-3, and lost quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a concussion. And Miami knocked off the New York Jets, 10-6, despite only 131 yards of offense by the Dolphins.
It was an embarrassing performance by the Jets, who were coming off a humiliating 42-point loss at New England. Coach Rex Ryan had even buried a game ball in front of his team in hopes of putting the Patriots pounding behind them.
Now, the Jets have to head to Pittsburgh with quarterback Mark Sanchez struggling and their playoff hopes in trouble.
“I’m very concerned,” Ryan said. “You look at our next opponent, and you say, ‘You think that this defense is good, just wait ‘til next week.’ We’ve got to make sure that we find a way to get better. We have to get better.”
Sanchez had an interception and a fumble, and at one point Jets Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath tweeted: “Mark is beginning to scare me.”
But Ryan defended his quarterback, saying: “It was not on one man. [The Jets have] to look in the mirror. There’s a heck of a lot more to blame than Mark Sanchez.”
Ryan knows, though, if the Jets don’t turn things around quickly, their designs on anything past December will plunge even faster than the temperature.
On the bubble
If they look at it optimistically, the New York Giants can find some relief in the fact it isn’t likely to be nearly as loud Monday when they play Minnesota at Detroit’s Ford Field, the stadium that will be used in place of the Metrodome. The Vikings’ home stadium might be the loudest in the league.
But what both the Giants and Vikings lose is an additional day to prepare for their next opponent. The Giants play host to Philadelphia on Sunday in a pivotal NFC East game. The Vikings are scheduled to play Chicago next Monday at the Metrodome, although it’s not known whether the stadium will be repaired by then.
Brett Favre’s remarkable streak of 297 consecutive regular-season starts could be coming to an end Monday night.
NFL Network’s Jason La Canfora reported the Minnesota quarterback has told “teammates and associates” that his string will end because of his sprained right shoulder. Vikings interim Coach Leslie Frazier has said Favre’s status will be a game-time decision.
Things are rough in Carolina, where the Panthers have lost 12 games for the first time since going 1-15 in 2001. Rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen apologized to linebacker Jon Beason for his play, simultaneously drawing the wrath of combustible receiver Steve Smith.
“If you’re going to apologize, you know, you should apologize to the people in the huddle with you,” Smith told reporters. “He has a lot to learn. He ain’t at Notre Dame anymore, that’s for sure.”
In a moment of incredibly poor sportsmanship, Jets assistant Sal Alosi intentionally tripped Miami’s Nolan Carroll as the player was running down the sideline during a punt return.
Alosi, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, stuck out his knee and tripped Carroll, who was running out bounds in front of the Jets’ bench. The player was slow to his feet and limped back to his sideline.
A Jets spokesman said the team is reviewing the situation, and Alosi issued an apology to the Dolphins.
“I made a mistake that showed a total lapse in judgment,” he said in a statement released by the team. “My conduct was inexcusable and unsportsmanlike and does not reflect what this organization stands for. … I accept responsibility for my actions as well as any punishment that follows.”