There are few dirtier, cheaper shots you will ever see in an NFL game. And this particular disgrace was caught on television, much to the dismay of the quickly unraveling New York Jets.
As if the Jets didn't have enough drama to deal with on the field, 33-year-old strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi added to the mayhem. Standing on the sideline during a punt return by the Jets, Alosi subtly stuck his knee out and tripped Miami Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll(notes), who was running down the sidelines as an outside coverage man. The maneuver sent Carroll, who was in full stride, tumbling to the ground, and left him shaken up before being attended to by trainers.
It's not exactly player-on-player spitting, or some of the gruesome antics that take place underneath a pile of players on the field. But it might be worse, because the coverage players running down opposing sidelines are defenseless against anything that might be coming at them outside the field of play. Carroll couldn't protect himself from Alosi's trip, because there was no way to expect it. Why? Because any NFL player with an ounce of class will tell you, that's too dangerous and too dirty.
As CBS analyst Dan Fouts said when a replay showed Alosi subtly sticking his knee out, "This is just uncalled for in the NFL. … Not sure who that person is, but they should be ashamed of themselves for that type of action. That has no place in any athletic event."
And he's absolutely right. That's what makes Alosi, a nine-year strength coach in the NFL, this week's biggest loser, because there is a difference between seeking an edge and pushing the boundaries of rules, and simply being malicious. The Dolphins were up in arms over it after Sunday's 10-6 win at the Meadowlands, which suddenly has the Jets looking far more vulnerable after back-to-back offensive implosions against the Patriots and Miami.
Certainly, Alosi's punishment – and there is bound to be one from the NFL – will be a topic of conversation in the coming week, particularly with the Jets reportedly playing dumb about the whole event in the postgame locker room, and Alosi being swept away from reporters by team security before he could be asked about the incident – though he did later apologize.
It's another plunge in what has been a precipitous fall for a team that was looking like a Super Bowl favorite only two weeks ago. First came the 45-3 road shellacking by the Patriots, and then the loss to the Dolphins – a combined two-game skid that saw quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes) complete only 34 of 77 passes with zero touchdowns and four interceptions. An awful run that even had Jets icon Joe Namath taking some mini jabs on his Twitter account.
Namath remarked the "offense continued to be inept" against Miami, and said of next week's game against the Steelers, "Hard to be optimistic." He also took a little dig at Sanchez at one point, saying "Mark is beginning to scare me."
I hardly take most of what Namath says with a grain of salt. I suspect he has never been all that thrilled with the instant love and attention lavished on Sanchez, nor the fact that the franchise's latest success means the fan base no longer orbits around the faded memories of Broadway Joe. But fans do listen when Namath talks. And revealing his eroding faith in Sanchez only serves to undercut the quarterback.
Combined with the losses, and the Patriots now hitting their stride, you could argue the Jets now find themselves at a pivot point in their season. Either they come out and right themselves against Pittsburgh next week, or they risk falling deeper into a malaise that is starting to have as much off-field drama as on it.
On to this week's other winners and losers …
• Mother Nature
The blizzard in the Chicago Bears/New England Patriots blowout is one thing. But it's not often you see a Midwest snowstorm wipe out an NFL game and a stadium. But as we learned with the forced extradition of the Minnesota Vikings/New York Giants game to Detroit on Monday, even the mighty NFL bows down from time to time. That's right. Mother Nature has scoreboard … basically for eternity.
The Vikings have announced free tickets will be available to the public in Detroit at 8 a.m. Monday, which means local residents can go witness history for free: the likely end of Brett Favre's(notes) consecutive games streak. And let's be honest – it might be a while before there is another regular season NFL game played in Detroit on a Monday.
Yeah, the Washington Redskins lost in disappointing fashion to the Buccaneers. But it sure had nothing to do with Torain, who rushed for 172 yards. It's worth noting that Torain is only 24, so Washington fans should look on the bright side: The franchise has the rest of the season to figure out if he might be as good as he looked in this game. If he is, at least the Redskins found a nice piece while sorting out this mess.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Not only did they beat Washington, the Packers stumbled to a very unlikely loss to the Lions, giving the Buccaneers more traction in the wild-card race. Even with the injuries (six starters in three weeks lost for the season), Tampa Bay could win out with its fairly soft schedule (home games against Detroit and the Seahawks, and a road game at the Saints) – particularly with the Saints possibly sitting some starters in the final week of the season.
Yeah, it was horrible, ugly, awful football. And it took the Packers losing Aaron Rodgers(notes) with a concussion and Greg Jennings(notes) dropping a likely touchdown. But a win in this city is a win nonetheless. Who knows? If Matt Stafford gets back on the field, there's still a chance for this team to finish out with a few wins and some positive feelings heading into the offseason. It might even be worth sacrificing the top three draft pick.
San Diego Chargers
You can bet the Chargers have some teams in the AFC playoff race sweating. Last week's inexplicable loss to Oakland aside, this team looks as good offensively as anyone in the NFL not wearing a Patriots uniform. And the Chargers aren't that far behind New England, either. Unfortunately for the Chargers, it is likely going to take winning the AFC West to make the playoffs, and that is going to be a chore. There is a chance that Kansas City wins out, too. But I'll say this: With Vincent Jackson(notes) back into the fold, and Antonio Gates(notes) coming back (eventually), this offense is frightening. Not a team anyone would want to see in the postseason.
The Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker notched two sacks in the win over the Cincinnati Bengals, and returned an interception for a touchdown. That's the third straight season Woodley has scored a defensive touchdown, and he's one sack from his third straight double-digit sack season. If I had to start a 3-4 defense tomorrow and could pick only one linebacker to build around, it would be Woodley, who turned 26 last month. He'll dominate the position for years to come.
San Francisco 49ers
A lot of people are going to be back on the Alex Smith bandwagon after his three touchdown passes, but this one isn't brain surgery. When the 49ers play well defensively, it makes or breaks this team. And it doesn't get much better than forcing five turnovers. This is still the most talented team in the division. But I don't buy that they'll run the table and clinch a playoff berth by winning the NFC West. 5-8 is just too deep a hole.
The guy has thrown 268 straight passes without an interception – his last one coming against Baltimore in Week 6. That's just 40 short of Bernie Kosar's 308, which was set in 1990-91. But I think it's even more impressive than Kosar's streak, considering the complexities and development of cornerbacks in today's NFL. You can book it. He's going to be the NFL MVP if Bill Belichick doesn't get him killed first. (Side note: Seriously, why did he play even one second in that fourth quarter, let alone throwing shotgun passes in slushy, awful conditions? Insanity.)
They once again showed resolve at the end of a game, watching a seven-point lead evaporate in the final minutes against the Raiders, then responding 19 seconds later with a huge kickoff return and a Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) touchdown run. The bottom line: they are 5-1 in their last six games and you can't classify any of those wins as coming against a true creampuff. Indeed, this is starting to look like a legit playoff team in the AFC. Now the Jags have to show it next week in Indianapolis. Win there, and Jacksonville clinches the postseason.
Atlanta Falcons' pass rush
The Falcons notched five sacks in the dismantling of the Panthers. While this comes against a bad team, Atlanta is picking up the pressure coming into the stretch run. That's exactly what you want as a coaching staff. And how about a round of applause for John Abraham(notes) – a holdover from the Rich McKay/Jim Mora era who has proven to have been a fabulous trade acquisition in the long run. With his two sacks Sunday, Abraham has double-digit sacks in three of his last four seasons.
His two sacks in the win over the Jets on Sunday raised his total to 14 in 13 games. He has quietly become a feared pass rusher in the league. An undrafted free agent in 2005 who had an offseason cup of coffee with the Giants, Wake didn't surface again until 2007 in the Canadian Football League. After putting up two dominant seasons in the CFL, including 23 sacks in 2008, he caught on with Miami. He's been a vital defensive piece ever since. He's definitely one of the league's feel-good stories.
This team isn't nearly as bad as the 3-10 record indicates. It's encouraging that the Bills are 3-2 in their last five and continuing to fight for Chan Gailey. Fred Jackson(notes) and C.J. Spiller(notes) will complement each other perfectly when all of the offensive pieces are healthy and playing together. Look at the scores this season: The Bills have lost four games by three points each. They lost another game by five, and another by eight. That's six games that were all winnable in the fourth quarter. This team deserves as much credit as the Lions in terms of future optimism.
New Orleans Saints
This team is scary again. Six straight wins, and they've scored over 30 points in five straight. On top of that, they're getting healthy again. The backfield is in better shape than it has been all season, Marques Colston(notes) is hitting his stride, and the defense is forcing turnovers and creating pressure. If the NFC's Super Bowl representative isn't decided between the Falcons and Saints, I'll be surprised. They're head and shoulders above everyone else in the conference.
Arizona Cardinals running back Tim Hightower(notes)
You have to give it to Hightower: The guy is tough. When Beanie Wells(notes) was drafted in the first round last year, Hightower might have been the only one who figured he'd still be starting at this point. But he's got the mental makeup to be a good running back in this league. And after strong back-to-back games, including 148 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Denver on Sunday, he's earned the sustained look the rest of the way. If he cuts out the fumbles (haven't we heard this before?) he should own that job in 2011, too.
• Green Bay Packers
It's time to start worrying. Seriously. The Packers couldn't afford to lose to the Lions. Not with a trip to New England next week and the Patriots butchering opponents. The home games against the Giants and Bears won't be cakewalks, either. There had to be a vigil in every church in Green Bay on Sunday night, with fans praying Aaron Rodgers' concussion won't linger. I'm still perplexed Matt Flynn(notes) wasn't good enough to mount a single touchdown drive. I thought he was a better backup than that.
• Carson Palmer(notes)
Carson Palmer spent all week talking up former USC teammate Troy Polamalu(notes), then threw a pair of interceptions to him. Polamalu probably stole Palmer's Head and Shoulders after the game, too. It was Palmer's pair of interceptions returned for scores (one to Polamalu and one to LaMarr Woodley) that ultimately scuttled the Bengals. Palmer is a middle-of-the-road quarterback who appears to be in decline. And to think … this team started 2-1 and had a lot of optimism before losing 10 straight.
• Denver Broncos
I was actually foolish enough to think this team might have a little bounce after Josh McDaniels was let go, a la the Vikings after jettisoning Brad Childress. Instead, the Broncos look like a team that is heading to the cashier to exchange their chips and get the hell out of dodge. To get pounded by the Cardinals, who trotted out third string quarterback John Skelton(notes) as their starter, is unforgivable. There is no use in sitting Tim Tebow(notes) at this point. You might as well see what you've got, particularly seeing that Denver will be at the top of a quarterback rich draft.
• Kansas City Chiefs offense
Can Matt Cassel(notes) be this important? The guy goes down, and the entire offense vaporizes with him? To the tune of five total first downs and only 67 yards of offense? I know Cassel was having a very underrated season, but Sunday's blowout loss to San Diego was a disgrace. At least the Chiefs know one thing: it's probably time to start working on another backup plan. Look at Brodie Croyle's(notes) last few opportunities. He's a third stringer at this point.
• Chicago Bears fans
Living in Chicago, I feel for them. There was a tidal wave of cautious optimism heading into this week's game against New England – the kind of measuring stick that would show exactly where the Bears stood with the league's current Super Bowl favorite. The answer was like the frigid Chicago weather: cold, harsh, and likely to linger for far longer than anyone wants. Bears fans were flooding out of Soldier Field at halftime, with the Patriots holding a 33-0 lead. And the radio was ablaze with the questioning of anyone and everyone, from Lovie Smith to Jay Cutler(notes) and (of course) general manager Jerry Angelo. A lot of good feelings were erased in one fell swoop.
• Oakland Raiders
Even with some aging pieces on defense, I'm convinced that there is hope for Oakland. But this is still a team that can't seem to stay on the same page. A strong offensive effort is scuttled by the defense, or vice versa. A lot of that falls on the coaching. That said, the Raiders are breathing a sigh of relief that Darren McFadden(notes) (209 yards from scrimmage, three touchdowns) is back on track.
• Carolina Panthers
I'm struggling to find something positive to say. How about this: Carolina Panthers, meet Andrew Luck. Andrew Luck, meet the Carolina Panthers. There. That's a start.
• Redskins' special teams
Let's see: two missed chip shot field goals by Graham Gano(notes). One botched extra point, costing Washington a shot at overtime. Five punts – none of which landed inside the opponent's 20-yard line. It couldn't have been much more miserable. Considering all the drama and failed expectations, this 5-8 team is already more disappointing than anything from last season.
• Seattle Seahawks
The injuries are out of control. Deon Butler's(notes) broken leg, which sounded a lot like a compound fracture, was gruesome. There's no doubt the constant roster shuffling is leading to a lot of the inconsistency, but the Seahawks know the biggest issue at hand remains finding a quarterback to build around. Healthy receiving corps or not, Matt Hasselbeck(notes) is in natural decline, and it's time to seriously address the situation in the offseason. And the struggles might be a blessing, with the draft expected to produce as many as four big, prototypical top end quarterbacks in Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Ryan Mallett and Jake Locker. It's a good year to need a signal caller in the draft.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
The Vikes' home game vs. the Giants has been moved to Detroit.
(Ann Heisenfelt/AP Photo)
Loved:Fox's time elapsed video of the Metrodome roof's collapse from inside the stadium. Amazing. Some of the best video of the year.
Loathed: Seeing Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) hesitate on a first-quarter scramble to the end zone against Carolina. The result was Ryan nearly getting his head taken off by Panthers linebacker Jon Beason(notes) at the 1-yard line. Everyone on the Falcons coaching staff and in the front office had white knuckles as they watched that one.
Loved: Watching LeGarrette Blount(notes) continue to pound tacklers for the Buccaneers. Titans coach Jeff Fisher is right: He made a major blunder when he let Blount go. Along with Josh Freeman(notes), Tampa should have its backfield core for a long time to come.
Loathed: The awful drop by Packers wideout Greg Jennings with just under two minutes remaining in the first quarter against Detroit. The likely touchdown went through Jennings' hands, hit his facemask, and landed in the arms of Lions cornerback Amari Spievey(notes). Even Braylon Edwards(notes) winced at that one.
Loved: The nice leaping first-quarter interception in the end zone by Packers cornerback Tramon Williams(notes). Score another one for Green Bay's personnel department for snagging the undrafted Williams in 2007 and developing him into one of the game's most underrated cornerbacks.
Loathed: Watching the Redskins trample the Buccaneers, rushing for over 150 yards by the middle of the second quarter … but score zero points on a pair of missed field goals. Remember when we used to call Mike Shanahan an offensive genius?
Loved: Antwaan Randle El's(notes) insane leaping one-handed catch with 56 seconds left in the first half against Cincinnati. This is how you stay in the league nine seasons as a 5-foot-10 role playing wideout. It's a stunning example of athleticism and sacrifice.
Loathed: Seeing Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffer a concussion for the second time this season. Not only is it rough for a team that is engaged in a tight playoff race, it gives you pause when you consider how often Rodgers uses his feet to make plays. He should have slid on the play which could've prevented a punishing hit. Not smart.
Loved: Watching Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) continuing to gut out play after play despite a third-quarter ankle sprain (and on top of the broken nose). Say what you want about the guy off the field, but there's no denying his toughness.
• Loathed: The pathetic tackling attempt by Washington's DeAngelo Hall(notes) on the 64-yard catch and run by Tampa Bay's Arrelious Benn(notes). Hall went for the strip rather than the tackle and gave up another 20 yards of real estate on the play. Next time he wonders why his playing style gets criticized, a clip of that tackle would be a good start.