ATLANTA – One by one, the line got longer. Soon it was five, seven, 10 reporters deep. It looked like a queue of well-wishers, all lining up to congratulate the prom king. That seemed appropriate, since Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner has earned at least one crown this season: Best free agent signing of 2008. In fact, he might be the best running back in the NFL this season.
Certainly there are trendier, flashier picks – guys like the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson, the Washington Redskins' Clinton Portis or the Carolina Panthers' DeAngelo Williams. But maybe only Peterson holds a candle to the consistency and load that Turner has carried this season. Peterson leads Turner in rushing yards (1,581 to 1,421) and yards per carry average (4.9 to 4.2). But Turner has important edges in touchdowns (15-9) and fumbles lost (Peterson has three in 320 carries; Turner has only one in 332).
Those are the kind of numbers the Falcons envisioned last offseason, when Atlanta signed Turner to a lucrative six-year $34.5 million deal. This despite Turner having averaged 57 carries a year in his first four seasons, while backing up LaDainian Tomlinson for the San Diego Chargers. But Turner has obliterated the skeptics who thought Atlanta was taking a massive risk on an unproven commodity.
"We knew when we were doing our due diligence that he was the kind of running back that we wanted to have," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. "We wanted to be able to feed him the football, and as the game went on [against Tampa Bay], he got stronger and stronger. That's the best thing about Michael. He gets stronger as the game goes on."
The game and the season. Sunday was Turner's third 100-yard rushing performance in four games – the first time he's done that this year. Now comes the natural question: Is he the league's best this season? We might find out next week, when the Falcons go to Minnesota in a game with major playoff implications for both teams. If Turner out-duels Peterson in that setting, all that might be left to do is to line up and congratulate him.
Here are some of this Sunday's other winners and losers …
• The Atlanta Falcons
In a game they couldn't afford to lose, Atlanta survived a blocked punt late in regulation and held on to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, putting itself into prime playoff position with two games left. They showed grit Sunday. Atlanta's offense wasn't great for four quarters, yet kept its poise when it mattered most. And quarterback Matt Ryan showed his greatness again, using his feet to dig out a win in overtime after struggling with two interceptions in regulation.
• The WhoDeyRevolution
The billboards purchased complaining about the lack of a general manager for the Cincinnati Bengals was a great idea. But the urinal cakes snuck into Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday – with the horrid record of the franchise since being purchased by the Brown family – was genius. Take note, Detroit Lions fans.
• Falcons defensive end John Abraham
He added three more sacks Sunday, including a pivotal takedown late in the fourth quarter that helped stave off a game-winning drive by Tampa Bay. Abraham now has 15½ sacks on the season – a career high. He is to the defense what Ryan is to the offense.
• The Cincinnati Bengals
Cedric Benson's 161 offensive yards and the defense's stout performance against the spiraling Washington Redskins were surprising. Maybe there isn't a lot to cheer about with a 2-11-1 record, but the Lions would kill for one of those wins.
• The Houston Texans and wideout Andre Johnson
The Texans are on another late push to finish with a respectable record, and Johnson continues to dominate. His 207 receiving yards Sunday were a franchise record, and many of them came against a Pro Bowl-caliber player in Cortland Finnegan.
• Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning
As unfathomable as it was a month ago, Manning has injected himself into the league's MVP race. With 13 touchdowns and three interceptions in his last seven games, Manning's overall numbers and Indy's seven-game winning streak make him one of the better candidates. It helps that so many other quarterbacks (Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Drew Brees, etc.) have been up and down during the second half of the season.
• Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard
He wins games when he's not turning the ball over, and he looked as sharp, both passing and scrambling Sunday, as he has all season. If Jacksonville fixes that offensive line, he can still be a quality starter. But he has to take a page from Sunday's performance and continue to take yardage on the ground when it's available.
• Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen
With two more sacks Sunday, he's got 14½ this season and has a shot to win the pass rushing crown. And here's an honor that he really wants: the last player in the league to win the sack crown in back-to-back seasons was Reggie White (1987-88).
• Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson
Four touchdown passes in 11 completions. He was the difference-maker in the blowout win over the Arizona Cardinals. How could Brad Childress put him back on the bench in favor of Gus Frerotte now?
• The Pittsburgh Steelers
Say what you want about how they got there, but winning the AFC North with this team's spate of injuries early on is a major accomplishment. You still get the feeling that the Steelers aren't playing their best football, but Mike Tomlin has them moving in the right direction. This will be the scariest team in the AFC come the postseason.
• Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith
He's the consistent offensive threat overshadowed by the running game. But he's the reason DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart don't have to deal with cheating safeties. Smith's 103 yards per game this season is the best average of his career.
• New England Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel
When he's hot, he's hot: Sunday's four touchdown passes against the Oakland Raiders were the fourth time this season he's had a game with at least three passing scores. The other three were against playoff-caliber teams in Denver, Miami and the New York Jets. Cassel, whose Sunday heroics came on the heels of his father's death, has the Patriots in good position for a postseason berth. At this rate, he might be worth two first-round picks in trade value.
• Viewers of the Patriots/Raiders game
It was one of the season's best offensive bombardments: 11 total touchdowns, zero field goals. How the two teams combined for nine punts is beyond me.
• The Redskins
That was nothing less than an implosion against a bad Cincinnati team. Benson looked like Emmitt Smith in the first quarter. All I could think of when I watched it was all the Redskins defensive players that won the fan portion of the Pro Bowl voting. I can see this team losing out the rest of the way.
• New York Jets linebacker Vernon Gholston
He was a healthy scratch Sunday, and with 12 tackles and no sacks this season is starting to look like a major draft bust. He should pull aside teammate Calvin Pace and talk to him about how he resurrected his career after a terrible start with the Arizona Cardinals.
• The Tennessee Titans
The Titans might have suffered a devastating loss Sunday when defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth sustained a knee injury. The team won't have MRI results until Monday, but anything less than a minor sprain would be a huge loss. With defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch already banged up, a serious injury to Hayensworth could be devastating, especially with Pittsburgh coming to town next week.
• The Titans offense
The unit hasn't found a consistent balance over the last month, whether it's the running game failing one week or the passing game failing the next. For a team that wants to be playing its best and gathering momentum into a playoff run, the Titans appear to be losing steam. And neither of their final two games – against Pittsburgh and Indianapolis – appear to be a lock anymore.
• The Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The offense looked mediocre Sunday, as you would expect without Jeff Garcia. But the run defense is suddenly looking very troubling. After missing a litany of tackles and gap assignments against Carolina last week, the Bucs didn't look a great deal better against Atlanta, surrendering 175 rushing yards and failing to account for a scrambling Ryan in an overtime loss. The breakdowns have put this team in a dangerous place in the postseason race.
• The Lions
They've been competitive the last two weeks, which almost makes the losing more frustrating. They just can't get the breaks they need late in games. On the bright side, the season finale at Green Bay looks far more winnable than it did a month ago. At 0-14, that's about as good as the hope gets.
• The Packers running game
We could hammer on the pass rushing every week, but I'll go another way this time. How much better would that offense be if it had a good change-of-pace back next to Ryan Grant? Imagine Leon Washington in this offense.
• The Chiefs defense
Outside of Detroit's unit, I'm not sure there is a more bumbling collection in the league. Even when they have a strong 2½ quarters, as they did Sunday, it's only a matter of time before they collapse. That much was evident when San Diego scored three straight touchdowns to finish the game.
• Arizona Cardinals wideout Anquan Boldin
He's not all to blame for Sunday's loss, but he was virtually nonexistent against Minnesota. He's got zero touchdowns and two lost fumbles the last three weeks, not to mention a smattering of dropped passes. For this offense to be its explosive best, he has to play better than he has of late.
• The NFL rulebook
By the letter of the law, Santonio Holmes' game-winning touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens was legitimate. He had both feet in the end zone, and that's a touchdown. But the touchdown rules are convoluted: On one hand, you have to break the goal line with the football when your momentum is going forward , but on the other, you only have to have both feet in the end zone when you are stationary. It makes more sense to just make one rule – stating the ball has to break the goal line no matter what.
• The Ravens
It was a shame to see a superb defensive game decided on a nonsensical rule. I would have loved to see what would have happened if Pittsburgh was forced to go for it on fourth and six inches to win the game.
– Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith, talking to the NFL Network's Sterling Sharpe about punching teammate Ken Lucas in the preseason.
A record number of consecutive wins the New England Patriots have strung together when leading at the half.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: Watching Dan Orlovsky and the Lions compete in their loss to Indianapolis. The Lions aren't going to 0-16 without a fight, and that's commendable. The more I watched Orlovsky Sunday, the more I thought the Lions would have had a win by now if he hadn't injured his thumb this season.
Loathed: Seeing Santana Moss pull out a towel and shine his shoes after a touchdown which pulled Washington within 17-7 against Cincinnati on Sunday. The timing of the celebration was ridiculous. It was the definition of a selfish moment.
Loved: Watching the last four minutes of the San Diego/Kansas City game. It has to rank up there as one of the most miraculous finishes of the season. Bring on yet another Kansas City defensive coordinator. Or just don't fill the position at all. It probably wouldn't make a difference.
Loathed: Seeing the Georgia Dome only 70-percent filled five minutes into the first quarter on Sunday. It eventually filled up to about 85-percent by halftime, but the late arrivals were very disappointing considering the magnitude of the game. This is the kind of thing that contributes to Atlanta's bad rep as a sports city.
Loved: Watching the Miami defense hold Vernon Davis to five catches for 31 yards after he talked trash about having played better linebackers than Joey Porter, and having gotten the better of those players. Davis still doesn't get it.
Loathed: Seeing the pair of 15-yard personal foul penalties from cornerback Cortland Finnegan in a drive that gave Houston a field goal and a 13-9 lead in the Texans' eventual win. Finnegan is a great player, but that talent isn't an excuse to lose his cool. If he doesn't get it under control, he's going to cost the Titans dearly in a game that truly matters.
Loved: Watching the acrobatic 61-yard touchdown catch by Miami's David Martin and realizing that we're in an era of super athletic tight ends. From Antonio Gates to Jason Witten to Tony Scheffler and many others, it's gotten to be an exciting position in the game.
Loathed: Seeing Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher decide to go for it on fourth-and-3 rather than kick a 49-yard field goal in the fourth quarter against Houston. It was a losing call, plain and simple.
Loved: Watching Arizona Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie play. He's still got plenty of kinks to work out, but he has as much athleticism as his cousin, San Diego's Antonio Cromartie. Take a look at Week 14's 99-yard interception return and this week's blocked kick returned for a score. He's a playmaker.
Loathed: Seeing the Green Bay Packers lose in Jacksonville to a bad Jaguars team. Things have fallen apart for the Packers. There needs to be some self-examination to find out who the leaders are on this defense. There is zero attitude on that side of the ball.
- Michael Turner
- Norv Turner