Friday, December 30, 2011

NFL Week 17 Games to Watch and Playoff Scenarios

So, here we are…the last week of the season and the last edition of Games to Watch.  *sniff*  I know you all will miss it (but please don’t correct me if I’m wrong).

While the NFC’s side of the playoff bracket is nearly set—only one division, the NFC East, still needs a champ and the seeding of the top teams is pretty much set—the AFC is still a Wild West show.  Two divisions in the AFC are still lacking champions and the seeding of its confirmed playoff teams is still up in the air.  Since we’re going to focus our GTWs on those with playoff implications, this edition will therefore be AFC-heavy.

Tennessee Titans (8-7) @ Houston Texans (10-5) (Sunday, 1:00 PM ET, CBS):  The Texans have the division title all wrapped up (and have for a few weeks now), but the Titans still have an outside chance at making the playoff via a wildcard spot.  To get into the playoffs, they need to win this game, but they also need help from some other teams.  Other than winning Sunday, here’s what the Titans need to avoid an early start to their offseason:  

·   The Baltimore Ravens need to beat the Cincinnati Bengals AND one of the following:

o  NY Jets beat the Miami Dolphins and the Oakland Raiders lose to San Diego; OR

o  Jets win and the Denver Broncos lose to the Kansas City Chiefs; OR

o  Jets lose and Oakland and Denver both win

New York Jets (8-7) @ Miami Dolphins (5-10) (Sunday, 1:00 PM ET, CBS):  Though they haven’t been in the playoff race for quite a while, the Dolphins would L O V E to ruin the Jets’ postseason hopes.  To keep playing past Sunday, the Jets need almost as much help as Titans.  They need to win AND have: Cincinnati losing to Baltimore, Tennessee losing to Houston AND either Denver or Oakland losing their games.

Kansas City Chiefs (6-9) @ Denver Broncos (8-7) (Sunday, 4:15 PM ET, CBS):  The AFC West is one of the divisions that still needs a champion crowned.  The race is between the Broncos and the Raiders, and the loser may be out of the playoffs entirely.  The playoff implications for this game are simple:  for Denver to make the playoffs, they need to beat the Chiefs, or the Raiders must fall to the Chargers.  The added drama for this contest, though, comes from the same source of nearly all the drama in the NFL this year:  the quarterback position.  The starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs is none other than Kyle Orton, who the Broncos benched after five games to give Tim Tebow the reins of the offense.

San Diego Chargers (7-8) @ Oakland Raiders (8-7) (Sunday, 4:15 PM ET, CBS):  The Raiders have to win this game to even sniff at the postseason, but they need a LOT of help, too.  It would be great for Oakland if the Broncos lose because they would go into the playoffs as a division winner.  However, they could still claim a wildcard spot if the stars align just right.  Here’s what the Raiders need for that wildcard playoff berth:

·    Beat San Diego AND either:

o   Cincinnati and Tennessee both lose; OR

o   Cincinnati loses and the Jets win

With Chargers head coach Norv Turner feeling the heat and possibly coaching his last game for the team, there will be no shortage of motivation on the San Diego sideline on Sunday.

Dallas Cowboys (8-7) @ New York Giants (8-7) (Sunday, 8:20 PM ET, NBC):  The scheduling gods have smiled upon us, for there could be no better nationally televised primetime game than this one.  This is a “win and in” scenario for both of these teams.  In addition, feeling the discomfort of a very hot seat, Giants coach Tom Coughlin may also be coaching for his job Sunday night.  The winner claims the NFC East and makes it into the playoffs by virtue of being a division winner.  However, because that division, and their records, are so average, the loser won’t even qualify for a wildcard spot and will go home.  So, it all comes down to one game between bitter division rivals.  I don’t think the fans of either team would want it any other way.

What a great way to end the season!  Enjoy the games, everyone, and we'll see you back here in 2012!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Just Another Manic Black Monday...

“Pro football is like nuclear warfare. There are no winners, only survivors.”

--Hall of Fame receiver Frank Gifford

Frank Gifford may have had Black Monday in mind when he uttered his famous quote.  Black Monday, which arrives this coming Monday, is the name given to the day after the last Sunday of the NFL regular season.  It is traditionally the day that team owners fire head coaches or general managers that haven’t lived up to expectations.  In contrast to "Black Friday," a bargain bonanza that makes you spring out of bed in the morning, January 2, 2012 will be a day that makes some head coaches crawl back under the sheets to hide.

This season, three teams couldn’t even wait for Black Monday to hand their head coaches a pink slip:  the Jacksonville Jaguars ended the nine-season tenure of Jack Del Rio after Week 12; the Kansas City Chiefs fired Todd Haley after Week 14 (the following week, the Chiefs handed the Green Bay Packers their first loss of the season); and judgment day came for the Miami Dolphins' Tony Sparano on the same day that Haley was shown the door. 

With half the teams in the league guaranteed to finish the season with .500 records or worse, there are plenty of candidates for this year's Black Monday.  Among the more likely heads expected to roll are:

·         Steve Spagnuolo (3-year tenure), St. Louis Rams (2-13)

·         Jim Caldwell (3-year tenure), Indianapolis Colts (2-13)

·         Raheem Morris (3-year tenure), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11)

·         Norv Turner (5-year tenure), San Diego Chargers (7-8)

·         Tom Coughlin (8-year tenure), New York Giants  (8-7)

You’ll notice that some on our list have only been in their positions a relatively short time.  Why not give them a bit longer to prove their worth?  Each has an explanation:  Steve Spagnuolo’s Rams have taken a big step back after finishing the 2010 season with seven wins,and Raheem Morris’s Bucs have been average under his leadership, but after a 4-2 start to this season they have lost eight in a row.  Jim Caldwell inherited a very talented team after coach Tony Dungy retired and has even led them to the playoffs each year since he’s taken over, including the Super Bowl in his first year (they lost to the New Orleans Saints).  However, the loss of Payton Manning for the season has proven to be the Junga tile that collapsed the house of cards in Indianapolis (sorry to mix metaphors).  Having only two wins with a team stacked with talented players whose names aren't Manning is inexcusable.

Tune into the news wires Monday to find out for whom the bell tolls…

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

First and Sin: "Non-Player" No-No's

Today’s lesson is on a rule that rarely comes into play in an NFL game, but gets a lot of air time when it does.  We’re talking about NFL Rule 13: Non-Player Conduct.
Rule 13 can be summed up pretty easily:  people on the sidelines who aren’t players, or players who aren’t currently on the field, can be penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, costing their team yards and maybe even points. 

As you might imagine, especially if you’ve been to youth sporting events, many of the fouls you’ll see under Rule 13 will be defined as “bad behavior” by coaches and players on the bench.  However, there don't have to be bad intentions for a penalty to be enforced.  Here are some specifics:

·   With the exception of team trainers or other necessary support personnel, and their assistants, no one is allowed on the field during timeouts without the permission of the Referee.  Even coaches must stay on the sidelines; players have to come to them during a timeout.  A coach coming onto the field to argue with an official will cost his team 15 yards.

·   The field is surrounded by a six-foot deep white border.  The only people allowed in that border during play are the officials.  This is actually an important rule to protect the safety of officials, players, and team personnel.  Serious injuries can occur when players on the field run or an official running down the sideline collide with personnel standing on the sideline.  Since the players’ and officials’ eyes are on the action on the field, they are essentially blind to the environment off the field.  Enforcing this rule was a new point of emphasis in the year I was officiating youth and high school football; it was very unpopular with the coaches, but after a first warning, subsequent violations resulted in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.  Since the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty is attributed to the head coach, he risked being ejected if a second such penalty (a third sideline violation) was called.  This may seem extreme, especially since this seems like an innocent mistake.  However, violating the sideline border it isn’t always innocent.  Take the following incident from last year, for example:

The trip was committed by Jets strength coach Sal Alosi who, ironically, was also the team’s “get-back” coach, the person responsible for keeping sideline personnel a safe distance from the field.  Unfortunately, the field officials didn't see the trip, and there was no penalty on the play.  However, Alosi was suspended by the league for the rest of the 2010 season, including the playoffs, and fined $25,000.  Though he was slow to get off the field, the player tripped, Nolan Carroll*, was not injured.  Alosi resigned from the Jets in January, 2011.

·   In addition to the white border surrounding the entire field, coaches and other team personnel are prohibited from positioning themselves past the 32-yard lines. 

·   Article 7 of the rule prohibits non-players from committing any act with is “palpably unfair.”  This would include, for example, a player who is not involved in the currently play running onto the field to tackle an opponent.

·   Article 8 specifically prohibits any type of abuse directed toward officials by non-players.  Physically touching an official is always a no-no, but if it’s done by a coach or a player on the bench, it will almost certainly result in an ejection.

·   Since the officials’ jurisdiction begins as soon as the officials step onto the field in uniform, players and coaches need to mind their manners before the game as well.  Player altercations during pre-game warm-ups or other flagrant conduct before the game or during intermissions are subject to Rule 13 enforcement.
Such is the importance of this rule that the officials have wide discretion in the type of penalty they impose.  The minimum penalty will be 15 yards from the new spot of the ball (if the violation occurred after the play ended) or the previous spot (if the violation occurred while the play was continuing).  However, the Referee can decide to take the 15 yards from a different spot—perhaps where the foul occurred, or on the kickoff if the play resulted in a score.

In addition to yardage penalties, the Referee can deemed that a player (or coach) is disqualified from participating in the game (i.e., he’s ejected), or he can even negate a score or award the score, if that seems to be the fairest solution.  Obvious examples would be if the player with the ball is tripped by someone on the sideline (touchdown awarded) or if a player in pursuit of the ball carrier is tripped (touchdown negated).

So, if you ever find yourself on the sidelines during a football game, better mind your P’s and Q’s, or it may cost your team TD’s!

*Random factoid:  Nolan Carroll's mother, Jennifer, is the Lieutenant Governor of Florida!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Recipe Time Out: People-Pleasing Peanut Butter Fudge

I couldn't let the holidays go by without posting a recipe guaranteed to satisfy even the most insatiable sweet tooth.  So, here's an early Christmas/Kwanzaa present (or on-time Hanukkah present) from Naptime Huddle:  Mom’s fabulous Peanut Butter Fudge recipe!


1 cup sugar
1 cup firmly-packed brown sugar
½ cup Half & Half
2 Tbsp. light corn syrup
¼ cup butter or margarine
½ cup peanut butter (crunch or plain, pick your poison)
½ cup marshmallow cream
2 tsp. vanilla extract


Combine sugars, Half & Half and corn syrup in a pot.  Cook over low heat, stirring gently until sugar dissolves.
Cover and cook over medium heat 2-3 minutes to wash down the sugar.
Uncover and cook to soft ball stage* (approx. 235°), stirring occasionally.
Remove from heat.
Add butter, peanut butter, marshmallow cream and vanilla extract.  Stir until smooth.
Pour into buttered 8-inch square baking pan, spreading evenly.
Allow to cool at least two hours; cut into squares to serve.


*For an explanation of the term “soft ball stage,” refere to Nicky’s post on the family’s Gooey Chocolate Cake recipe, found by clicking here.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Overtime Gone Overboard

Since we’re getting down to the end of the regular season and nearly every remaining game is significant to the postseason, I thought I would explain the overtime procedures in the NFL so that you will understand the bonus drama that comes with the rare tied game.  There is actually a significant twist to the overtime rules in the postseason as well, so this lesson is a good one to tuck away for January.

The Basic Overtime

If the score is tied at the end of regulation in a regular season game, there is one SUDDEN DEATH OVERTIME period.  This means that the first team to score wins.  Contrast this procedure to college, where each team gets at least one possession and they take turns attempting to score.  If the score is still tied after each team has one possession, they keep going.  If the first team scores, then the other gets the ball to try to tie or beat the other team’s score.  In both the NFL and college, the team receiving the ball first is determined by a coin toss, just as before the start of the game.

The Postseason Controversy

“Sudden death” –sounds simple, right?  If it was, I wouldn’t be writing about it.  The NFL recently made a change to the overtime procedures to complicate things a bit.  Many times in sudden death, you’ll see that, if the team with the first possession has a reliable kicker (so, nearly every team), it will simply attempt a field goal as soon as its offense gets within a reasonable distance of the end zone.  These outcomes have led to whining about how unfair it seemed to end games, especially ones so clearly hard-fought, by a field goal, as if this is somehow a dishonorable or cowardly way to end a game.  Since the winner of overtime coin toss will always choose to receive the ball first, the chief complaint is that the outcome of the game becomes largely a matter of luck.  This seems especially egregious in playoff games, where the outcomes are that much more fateful.

The Change

The complaining came to a fevered pitch in the postseason of the 2009 season when the Minnesota Vikings lost the NFC Championship game when the New Orleans Saints kicked a field goal on the opening possession of overtime.  The Saints went on to win the Super Bowl.   Such was the outcry for justice that in the spring of 2010, the NFL owners voted to change the rules for overtime in playoff games.  Upon closer examination, it turns out that the whiners had some basis for complaint.  Since 1994, the statistics showed that the winner of the coin toss won in overtime 59.8% of the time; 34.4% of the time on the first possession.  Ironically, the Vikings were one of only four teams that voted against the change. 

The new rules—only applicable in playoff games—are as follows:   

·   If the first team with possession scores a touchdown, the game is over.

·   If the first team with possession scores a field goal, then the other team gets a possession and will try to tie the game with a field goal or win with a touchdown.

·   If the game is still tied at the end of the first overtime, or if the team that received the opening kickoff has not completed its first possession (unlikely), a second overtime period will begin, and whichever team scores first wins.

 Are Tie Results Possible?

In the regular season, a game that is still tied after the first overtime period goes into the books as a tie, which accounts for a third digit in a team’s record (e.g., 10-3-1).  This is a pretty rare occurrence; since 1974, when the rule was first adopted, there have only been 17 tied results, with only four coming after 1989.  Consequently, this rule isn’t widely known, even among players.  Or, at least it wasn’t before 2008 (the last time there was a tie), when 10-year veteran QB Donovan McNabb admitted his ignorance of the fact after his Philadelphia Eagles tied the then-lowly Cincinnati Bengals.  He got a lot of flak for his mistake, with some wondering if strategy in the waning moments of overtime wasn’t impacted by it.  Overall, this was not a good day for McNabb, who fumbled once and threw three interceptions in the game.  Not helping himself, he also stated after the game “I guess we’re aware of [the rule] now…I hate to see what would happen in the Super Bowl and in the playoffs.”  Of course, Donovan, those games are fought until a winner is determined.

Suddenly…a Summary!

So, here is a summary of the rest of the overtime rules, as found in Article 16 of the NFL Rule Book:

·   For both regular season and postseason games:

o  There are no coaches’ challenges, and all reviews are initiated by the replay official.

o  There is a three minute break between the end of regulation and overtime, and the overtime period(s) each last 15 minutes, just like any regular quarter.

·    For regular season games:

o  Each team is allotted two time outs in overtime.

o  The overtime period is treated like the fourth quarter (e.g., there is a two-minute warning).

o  A tied score at the end of the single overtime period results in a tie game.

·   For postseason games:

o  As discussed earlier, the first team to score wins, unless the team receiving the ball first scores a field goal on its first possession.

o  A new overtime period will commence if the score is still tied at the end of the preceding period.

o  There will be a two-minute intermission between each overtime period.

o  The second and fourth overtime periods are timed as if they were the second and fourth quarters in a game (e.g., with a two-minute warning).

o  Each team gets three time outs for every two overtime periods.

So, with playoff games, think of overtime as starting a whole new least that's how the timing and time outs work.

There’s a lot to remember, to be sure, but at least now you won’t “McNabb” it when asked about overtime in the NFL!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gridiron Giving: Jared Allen's Homes for Wounded Warriors

Despite hearing reports about the difficulties combat veterans have adapting to life back home, it is impossible to really understand the scope of those difficulties unless you have experienced it yourself.  Try to imagine, though, coming home from being critically injured in combat to find that your home, the place you’d been working hard to return to, is no longer the haven you remember.  The doorways are too narrow for your wheelchair, the bathroom and kitchen are now filled with hazards and routine tasks like making a sandwich are a struggle.  It may begin to feel like your home has become a different kind of war zone.

This is a heartbreak that Jared Allen’s Homes for Wounded Warriors (“JAH4WW”) is trying to correct.  Jared Allen, a defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings, participated in a USO trip to U.S. military bases in the Middle East a couple of years ago with other representatives from the NFL.  Inspired by the dedication and sacrifices made by the soldiers he met, Allen founded JAH4WW in October of 2009.  He is also inspired by his family, many of whom have served in the military, including his grandfather and brother.

An avid outdoorsman and motor enthusiast, Allen has channeled his passions into fundraising opportunities for his organization, a nonprofit based in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Last spring, Paul Jr. Designs (that’s Paul Teutul, of American Chopper fame) unveiled a custom tribute bike custom-made to raise money for JAH4WW.  You can buy t-shirts depicting the bike on the organization’s website.  

On December 3rd, the organization put on a car show and silent auction in conjunction with several sponsors; all entry fees went toward funding the JAH4WW mission.  Allen has also hosted golf tournaments, including last summer’s second annual “Night Ops” tournament.  With the flair Jared brings to other aspects of his life, the event included members of the Arizona National Guard screaming like drill sergeants as participants teed off.   

JAH4WW recently announced the identity of the next recipient of a home remodel.  Private First Class Joshua Bullis was deployed to the Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan in April 2010 when he stepped on a buried improvised explosive device (IED) during a routine patrol.  As a result of the blast, PFC Bullis lost both legs above the knee and his left arm above the elbow.  The complete remodel of his home will include ramps, wider doors and hallways, and custom bathrooms and kitchen to accommodate his wheelchair.  There will also be changes to his garage to allow easy access to his custom vehicle, and an outdoor patio.

Organizations like Jared’s are so wonderful because they not only fulfill a real need, but they let our servicemen and women know how much their sacrifices are truly appreciated.

For more information, including ways you can help this worthwhile cause, visit the JAH4WW website at  To find out ways you can help local veterans and active soldiers by volunteering or making donations to charities like Jared’s, contact your local VA facility or local USO; you can find your local USO Center at 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Thanks Be to Sod...NFL Miracles (Chapter 1, Verse 2)

Today we continue our look at plays in the NFL that seemed to be inspired by a Higher Power.  If you missed the first three miracles in our list, click here.

4.  The Staubach Hail Mary:  “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…”  Catholics around the globe recognize this as the first line of a core prayer in their faith.  Football fans everywhere recognize it as the inspiration for the name of a play that comes at the most critical moment of a game.  In football terminology, a “Hail Mary” pass is a desperation play, a long pass near or in the end zone thrown from far downfield, as time runs out of either the first half or the entire game.  The Hail Mary is used as a last-ditch effort by the losing team to tie or win the game.  But when was the term first used?  Though there are records of its use further back in football history, the term became popular after the 1975 NFC divisional playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings.  Dallas QB Roger Staubach found his team trailing the Vikings 14-10 with 1:51 left in the game.  Reaching the middle of the field with 24 seconds left, Staubach threw a desperation pass to wide receiver Drew Pearson.  Pearson managed to trap the ball against his hip at the 5-yard line and backed into the end zone for the winning score.  In a postgame interview, Staubach, a Catholic, said of his throw: “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”  Among the more exciting Hail Mary passes in recent memory is the following, which took place at the end of a game between the Houston Texans and the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2010:

You should have noticed three things in this video: (a) there were only three seconds left in the game with the score tied, making this an all-or-nothing play; (b) the announcers’ discussion about knocking the ball down (Texans defender Glover Quin did everything he was supposed to, it was just bad luck); and (c) the Jaguars mascot chasing Mike Thomas across the end zone.

2.  Miracle at the Meadowlands:*  On November 19, 1978, the Philadelphia Eagles were coming off a two-game winning streak and battling for a wildcard spot when they faced the New York Giants, who were pursuing their own (slim) playoff dreams.  The Eagles were trailing 17-13 with just under four minutes left in the game and no timeouts left.  After driving down the field, the Giants had a third down with only thirty seconds left.  Expecting the Giants QB, Joe Pisarcik, to kneel down with the ball to run out the clock, the Eagles coaches told their defense to blitz.  However, the Giants coaches called a running play and, instead of kneeling, Pisarcik tried to hand the ball to his running back, Larry Csonka.  The hand-off was botched, however, and the ball came loose.  Eagles cornerback, Herm Edwards (who later became a head coach in the NFL and is now an announcer for NBC), close to the line of scrimmage because of the blitz call, alertly scooped up the ball and ran it into the end zone.  Giants offensive coordinator Bob Gibson was fired the next day and never worked in football again.

3.  Music City Miracle:  The place:  Nashville, Tennessee.  The date:  January 8, 2000.  The game:  the wildcard playoff game between the Tennessee Titans and the Buffalo Bills.  After a second half that saw the Buffalo Bills bounce back from being down 12-0, the Titans waited for the Buffalo kick off after a field goal that put the Bills ahead 16-15 with only sixteen seconds left in the game.  Titan Lorenzo Neal received the kick off.  He handed the ball to tight end Frank Wycheck, who threw a lateral pass across the field to receiver Kevin Dyson.  Dyson ran down the sideline 75 yards for the game-winning touchdown.  A booth review was called by the officials, and the referee examined the instant replay to determine whether the Wycheck pass was a lateral, or whether he illegally threw it downfield.  Referee Phil Luckett determined that the play was correctly called a touchdown.  Here is a video of the Music City Miracle, including a computer simulation that shows that the officials made the right call:

So… Do you believe in miracles???

*I had some reservations about including this one... Is it a miracle when the opponent just made a bad error in judgment? But since it actually has "Miracle" in its name, I decided it would be a glaring omission if this play were excluded. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

NFL Week 15 Games to Watch . . . and Playoff Snapshot

Before we get into the three games I’ve picked as the can’t-miss matchups this week, let’s take a look at the current playoff picture, just to put everything in perspective.  To summarize, twelve teams in total make the NFL playoffs:  one from each of the eight divisions, and two “wildcard” teams from each conference.  The six teams in each conference are “seeded”—that is, ranked—first to sixth.  The first and second seeds in each conference get a bye in the first week of the playoffs, in which the other division winners face off against each other or the wild card teams.  Since the highest seeded team in each game gets to play in its home stadium, the first seeds in each conference get a further benefit:  home-field advantage throughout the playoffs (until they lose, of course).

So, with that review in mind, here is the current playoff picture:

Division Leaders.  At this point, the champions of only three of the eight divisions have been determined:  the San Francisco 49ers (NFC West), the Green Bay Packers (NFC North) and the Houston Texans (AFC South).  The New Orleans Saints are leading the NFC South, two games ahead of the Atlanta Falcons, and have clinched a spot in the playoffs, even if they don’t end up winning that division.  The other current division leaders are:  the Baltimore Ravens (AFC North), the New England Patriots (AFC East), the Denver Broncos (AFC West) and the New York Giants (NFC East).

Wildcard Teams.  If the season ended today, the following teams would qualify for the postseason as wildcards:  the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets in the AFC; and the Atlanta Falcons and the Detroit Lions in the NFC.  Because the winner of each division automatically gets a playoff berth, there are often some strange results.  For example, the Falcons and the Lions, at 8 and 5, both have better records than the New York Giants, who are leading the NFC East with a 7-6 record.  In the AFC, the Steelers, at 10-3, are two games ahead of the NFC West-leading Denver Broncos, with an 8-5 record.

In the Hunt.  With three weeks remaining in the season, we can’t overlook the possibility that some other teams could still win enough games to make the playoffs, ousting five of the division leaders and the four current wildcards.  In the AFC, those teams are:  the Tennessee Titans, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers.  The NFC playoff race is a little more crowded; the Chicago Bears, the Dallas Cowboys, the Seattle Seahawks, the Arizona Cardinals and the Philadelphia Eagles all have a chance (some slimmer than others) of continuing to play in mid-January.

Eliminated.  Then there are the teams that should count on having plenty of free time come January.  In the AFC the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars should have plenty of time to return unwanted Christmas gifts.  The NFC’s Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins can go ahead and book vacations for New Year’s week.

Detroit Lions (8-5) @ Oakland Raiders (7-6) (Sunday, 4:05 PM ET, FOX):  With the Lions holding on by their thumbnails as a wildcard and the Raiders only one game out of the wildcard race, every game from here on out is critical for both teams.  Realistically, the Lions need to win the rest of their games to stay in the playoffs.  After the Raiders, they play the San Diego Chargers, who are also in the hunt; their last game is against the Green Bay Packers who, at that point, may be trying to accomplish a historic 16-0 season.  The Raiders’ remaining opponents are the Kansas City Chiefs and one of their division rivals, the San Diego Chargers.  Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh returns from a two-game suspension for stomping on an opponent, and he will be looking to make up for lost time against the struggling Raiders QB, Carson Palmer.  Of course, the Raiders aren’t exactly known for their afternoon-tea demeanor.  Even without the playoff drama, this contest should be entertaining.

New England Patriots (10-3) @ Denver Broncos (8-5) (Sunday, 4:15 PM ET, CBS):  The Chronicles of Tebow have been recited week-in, week-out for almost the entire 2011 season.  Themes have included praise, confusion, bewilderment, criticism and above all, wonder.  The Chicago Bears tried to disrupt the mojo of Tebow and the Broncos by filling the media with messages of scorn and an impending comeuppance in the week leading up to last week’s game, which ended in another thrilling victory (in overtime) for the Broncos.  However, the approach of the New England Patriots leading up to this week’s game couldn’t be more different.  It has been a virtual love fest of comments pouring from Foxborough this week.  Praise for Tebow and the entire Broncos squad has been from QB Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and owner Bob Kraft so fast that printing presses and keyboards can barely keep up.  Is this part of a reverse strategy to get into the Broncos’ heads?  Will the Pats kill them with kindness on Sunday or will the Broncos pull off another miraculous escape?

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) @ San Francisco 49ers (10-3) (Monday, 8:30 PM ET, ESPN):  Usually, you wouldn’t talk about a team with ten wins and only three losses being in a must-win game.  And we’re not going to talk about it here.  There’s no need to get into details, but even though the Steelers only have a wildcard spot right now, they have a two game lead over the holder of the second wildcard opening and a three-game lead over the next three contenders.  In fact, there are several ways the Steelers can clinch a playoff berth this weekend, even if they lose to the Niners.  For their part, the Niners have clinched the NFC West and their schedule gets much cushier after this weekend, with the Seattle Seahawks and the St. Louis Rams.  So why watch?  For one thing, this may be a preview of the Super Bowl, especially since both teams have a chance to finish as the No. 1 or 2 seed in their respective conferences, thus giving them a leg-up in byes and home field advantage.  For another, the injury Ben Roethlisberger sustained last week adds some additional drama to the action:  Will he sit out after heroically coming back in the second half last week?  If he plays, will the Steelers rely on the running game to protect Big Ben?  The Niners defense ranks #1 in the league in rush defense, so they could be looking to get Big Ben on the run.  What a great way to end Week 15!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gridiron Giving: Brian's Blessings

Today, I’m pleased to present a charity that is located practically in my own backyard, across the river in Maryland—Brian’s Blessings.

Brian’s Blessings was founded by Brian Westbrook, who grew up in Fort Washington, Maryland.  Westbrook has been a prolific running back in his nine-year career, earning 5,995 yards and 37 touchdowns, plus catching 426 passes for 3,790 yards and 29 touchdowns.  Drafted in 2002 by the Philadelphia Eagles, Westbrook spent his first eight years with Eagles before going to the San Francisco 49ers in 2010. 

For over six years, Brian’s Blessings has carried on its mission of helping less fortunate children build a sense of self-worth.  Not only does the organization provide tangible items such as food and educational materials, they strive to empower and inspire such children to set and achieve their goals.  Here are just some of the ways Brian’s Blessings helps children in the DC area:

  Christmas Giving:  Brian’s Blessings is currently running a toy drive for underprivileged children.  Anyone wishing to participate can visit the Toys R Us Wish List database and search for Wish List #31163910;

  Warmth Items:  The organization has distributed gloves, hats, ear muffs and other winter apparel to children and families in need;

  Back to School:  Partnering with the Boys and Girls Club of Washington, DC, the organization has conducted school supply drives to fill backpacks that they distributed to children in need; and

  Community Center:  Brian’s Blessings is currently seeking partners for the development of The Brian Westbrook Community Outreach Center, which will provide the space and resources for learning, recreation and fitness.

Like Charles Tillman, Westbrook was also nominated for a prestigious award to honor his service to the community:  the 2011 Jefferson Awards for Public Service.  If you would like to learn more about Brian’s Blessings, please visit their website at