'Fragile' Moss threatens to set back Patriots

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Tony Dungy said fragile "might be a good word" to describe Randy Moss(notes). And after watching Sunday's 20-10 win over the Carolina Panthers, it seems to be a fitting description for the New England Patriots' late-season momentum, too.

Only days after being sent home along with three other players for arriving late to a Wednesday meeting, Moss had one of the worst games of his career against the Panthers. His lone catch went for 16 yards and then ended with a fumble, which was recovered by Carolina. A second pass meant for Moss was intercepted. For much of the game after the turnovers, he was largely invisible, leading Dungy to agree with Dan Patrick's characterization that Moss was mentally fragile. Dungy made the statement while working as an analyst during NBC's pregame coverage on Sunday night. But that wasn't even the harshest criticism. Moss got that from some Panthers players, who told the Boston Globe he quit during the course of New England's win.

Randy Moss had one catch for 16 yards against the Panthers.
(US Presswire)

"We knew he was going to shut it down," Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble(notes) told the Globe. "That's what we wanted to do to him. That's what we did. … He'd just give up a lot."

Added Panthers safety Chris Harris(notes) to the Globe: "I know everyone who plays against him, they can sense that. Once you get into him in the beginning of the game, he shuts it down a little bit."

It's not the first time Moss has been dogged by the "quitter" label. He raised eyebrows at times in his latter years in Minnesota, rounding off routes or seemingly running in a lower gear at times. And he was questioned more than a few times in Oakland as being a player who would take multiple plays off during games. But this is the first time opposing players have been so publicly brazen in their criticism of it. And the fact that it comes on the heels of Moss being sent home from practice only adds fuel to the perception.

In the larger view, it makes you wonder if Moss was being alluded to when quarterback Tom Brady(notes), who following the loss to Miami, said "I don't think we fight very hard." Even when he had a chance to back off those comments on his weekly radio appearance on Boston's WEEI, he reiterated the stance that at times, the "digging deep" that used to define the Patriots wasn't always showing up.

“I don't think we fight very hard.”

Tom Brady, following last week's loss to Miami

Brady's had a few semi-heated moments talking to offensive players this season, and on some occasions, Moss was present and on the other side of Brady's glare.

Then on Wednesday, Moss gets sent home – something Dungy seemed to openly question during the NBC broadcast.

"Randy Moss played a poor game," Dungy said. "It probably started early in the week. I coached 13 years as a head coach. I've reprimanded guys. I've fined guys. I never sent a guy home from practice. I think that had to impact Moss."

If anything, that this all continues to come up after a win suggests this is going to be a problem that will dog this team right through the final month of the season. For the most part, Moss has avoided the media barbs in Boston that plagued him in Minnesota and Oakland. That won't happen anymore. His every play will be under the microscope the remainder of the season, right alongside his relationship with Brady and the players around him. If he is checking out, it will be exposed and showcased.

You have to think this is another example of the lost locker room leadership rearing its head. It's not like Moss is the first complex and sometimes volatile personality to come through New England. But he is certainly on the verge of becoming the first one that had the potential to undermine the Patriots' success. While linebacker Adalius Thomas(notes) has been lumped into the group of problem children, his impact can be minimized. He can be deactivated, as he was Sunday. Moss cannot. He's too vital to the ultimate success of this team. That offense simply can't function at an elite level without him.

A week ago, we questioned whether the Patriots had lost their aura and ability to intimidate. Now some opponents have come out and called their star receiver a quitter – an act that seemingly answers the question. Clearly, some fragility is creeping in. The only question is, how far will it reach, and can the Patriots do anything to change it?

Here are some of Week 14's other winners and losers …


Brandon Marshall broke the league's single-game record with 21 receptions including this fourth-quarter touchdown against the Colts.
(AP Photo)

Denver Broncos wideout Brandon Marshall(notes)
His 21 catches set a league record for a single game. Unfortunately it came in a loss, but Marshall showed humility afterward, essentially saying he'd trade the record for a win. Whatever the case, it was nice to see Josh McDaniels get Marshall over the top when it became apparent the record was in play. It's a tough loss for Denver, but the schedule is favorable in the final three. At worst, this should be a 10-win team. But the No. 2 seed and division are still in play. The Broncos have a lot to play for.

• The San Diego Chargers
I'm not sure that anyone wants to play this team right now. The offense is playing clutch football, and has found a way to spread it around and get a big game out of at least one offensive option each game. Last week it was Antonio Gates(notes). This week it was Vincent Jackson(notes). A few weeks ago, it was LaDainian Tomlinson(notes). And defensively, linebacker Brandon Siler(notes) has brought a ton of emotion and nastiness to the unit. This will be a very tough playoff team.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees(notes)
The defense iced the game in the fourth quarter, but this win doesn't happen without Brees playing near perfect football. New Orleans' rushing game was largely shut down, but Brees completed 31 of 40 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns, including seven completions on what turned out to be the game-winning drive for a field goal. He'll have some good momentum going into Saturday's game against Dallas, which should be the Saints' toughest remaining game (by far) in the drive to 16-0. Clearly Brees' arm is fresh, as he's on pace for his fewest pass attempts since 2005.

Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark(notes)
Sunday's three touchdown catches officially made this the best season of Clark's career, and the Colts still have three games remaining. His route running is as close as you get to perfection from his position. With all due respect to guys like Austin Collie(notes) and Pierre Garcon(notes), Clark is the reason this offense overcame the loss of Anthony Gonzalez(notes). Along with Antonio Gates, Clark has become one of the toughest tight end matchups in the NFL.

• The Houston Texans offense
Andre Johnson(notes) had 193 receiving yards and two touchdowns, and this offense didn't miss a beat without Steve Slaton(notes), who is out for the season. Matt Schaub(notes) had his seventh 300-yard game of the season, and has finally met his expectations as Houston's franchise quarterback. And give it up to the offensive line, which has allowed only four sacks in the past three games.

• The New England Patriots
It wasn't anything close to pretty, but at this stage, the Patriots need to find ways to win again, lest they fall into the same hole as the Pittsburgh Steelers. At this point, you can't look at any of the Patriots' remaining opponents (at Buffalo, Jacksonville and at Houston) and assume a win. New England's offense can still light it up with regularity, but you are definitely seeing teams trend toward taking Randy Moss away and letting Wes Welker(notes) have the underneath yardage. At least New England is running the ball again. That dimension helped win the game against Carolina.

Buffalo Bills interim coach Perry Fewell
With the win over Kansas City, Buffalo is 2-2 since Fewell took over. Moreover, the Bills have had a chance to win in the fourth quarter of both losses. I still think Fewell is a long shot to land this job permanently, but he has done nothing to hurt his chances. There are three challenging games remaining (New England, at Atlanta and Indianapolis) and a chance to factor into some playoff races. Undoubtedly, there is an opportunity to make the Bills' next coaching decision very difficult.

• The Baltimore Ravens running game
Baltimore's trio of Ray Rice(notes), Willis McGahee(notes) and Le'Ron McClain(notes) finished with four touchdowns and the Ravens rushed for an absurd 308 yards. Rice was sensational, rushing for 166 yards and adding 53 receiving yards. It bodes well for a team that is right back in the thick of the AFC playoff picture, and facing a pivotal road game at Pittsburgh in two weeks.

• The Miami Dolphins
The defense has made big plays at pivotal moments in back-to-back weeks, and the pass rush is showing signs of life. And while the stats won't show it from Sunday's game, Chad Henne(notes) (21-for-229, 220 yards) is making great strides as a pocket passer for Miami. Subtract the fumbling issues of Ricky Williams(notes), and this looks like a tougher, more patient team than it was early in the season – but not a playoff team. The road is too brutal with games against Tennessee, Houston and Pittsburgh.

The Vikings' Antoine Winfield (L) and Jamarca Sanford celebrate during their 30-10 win against the Bengals.
(Elsa/Getty Images)

• The Minnesota Vikings defense
If you ever want to see what kind of difference Antoine Winfield makes for the Vikings, get a tape of the win over Cincinnati. Winfield was beating the brakes off the Bengals offense all day long. He was a major reason Carson Palmer(notes) couldn't make big plays downfield and was limited to 94 passing yards. For a week, the loss of linebacker E.J. Henderson(notes) was negligible.

• The New York Jets' playoff hopes
Don't look now, but the Jets are suddenly back into AFC wild-card contention after a horrific 1-6 stretch that appeared to blow up coach Rex Ryan's first season. They're 3-1 since Rex Ryan's crying in a team meeting. With Atlanta, Indianapolis and Cincinnati left on the slate, the postseason is a long way away. But the defense has allowed only one touchdown in three games, so the Jets remain dangerous.

• The Green Bay Packers running game
Ryan Grant(notes) had a huge day (137 rushing yards and two touchdowns) and the Packers controlled the tempo in a rare quiet game from Aaron Rodgers(notes) (16-for-24, 180). Frankly, it was much needed. Green Bay can't make a Super Bowl push if Grant can't make some big plays and help slow down some of the high-powered offenses this team will face in the NFC playoffs. But we won't know how legitimate this running game is until we see it down the stretch in road games at Pittsburgh and Arizona.

Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson
What can you possibly say about him at this point? In spite of Vince Young(notes) going down early with a hamstring injury, Johnson finished with 186 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns against St. Louis. He's playing like he's in a video game. He also set the Titans' team record with his eighth straight 100-yard game. How much do you think he would like to have the first five games back, when he broke 100 yards only once?

Washington Redskins
That offense has looked dramatically better since Sherm Lewis was brought in to call plays. Both sides of the football are playing with a ton of confidence, particularly quarterback Jason Campbell(notes). Perhaps the most positive thing happening right now is the Redskins are developing some talent that will pay off down the road. Several new contributors should factor big into the future, including tight end Fred Davis(notes), running back Quinton Ganther(notes) and wideout Devin Thomas(notes).


Cowboys RB Marion Barber is tackled at the goal line by Brandon Siler #59 of the Chargers. The Cowboys lost 20-17.
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

• The Dallas Cowboys
Yeah, it's time to panic. Dallas went from looking like a surefire NFC playoff team to bumbling away a vital win against San Diego. The four straight runs to Marion Barber(notes) at the 1-yard line, which ended with Dallas turning it over on downs, was alarming. The Cowboys can't convert big plays when they need to have them. And now DeMarcus Ware(notes) is down with a neck injury. Blame quarterback Tony Romo(notes) all you want, but this is a widespread problem. And wow, that remaining schedule (at New Orleans, at Washington and Philadelphia) looks brutal.

• The Atlanta Falcons
They are 2-6 since the 4-1 start, which kind of makes this feel like the Jim Mora years. They could still salvage back-to-back winning season with a winnable final three games (at Jets, Buffalo, at Tampa Bay). That would be a silver lining, along with having gotten a good look at Jason Snelling(notes). You take the positives where you can get them at this point.

• The Cincinnati Bengals offense
Carson Palmer was shut down by the Vikes and has thrown only four touchdowns in his last six games. His wideouts aren't making big plays down the field. This is where Chris Henry would have provided some downfield pop. This hasn't been the same offense since he went down in Week 9 against Baltimore. Next week's game in San Diego is a potential playoff preview with major implications on the No. 2 playoff seed.

• The Detroit Lions
Running back Kevin Smith(notes) suffered a knee injury and the Lions lost some of their dignity as they were rung up by the Ravens. Maybe it would have been more competitive had Matthew Stafford(notes) played, but it's unlikely. The defense was awful. It looked slow and had some terrible tackling. Ndamukong Suh? The Lions might need three or four dominant draft picks like the Heisman Trophy finalist.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman(notes)
The running game didn't help him, but Freeman had a continuation of last week's awful five-interception effort. His three interceptions against the Jets scuttled any chance of a Bucs win. Freeman now has 11 interceptions in his last four games. With road games at Seattle and New Orleans ahead, and a home tilt against Atlanta, there may not be another win on the schedule.

• The Denver Broncos
The Broncos fought at the end, but the offense needs to do something about getting other receivers involved. Marshall's 21 receptions are an indictment when it comes to some other players. Indeed, there may not be a more disappointing second-year player than Eddie Royal(notes). And I still don't think the offense incorporates Tony Scheffler(notes) enough. Suddenly there are a lot of other AFC teams creeping up on the Broncos in that wild-card race.

Jim Mora and the Seahawks are 5-8 after losing to Houston.
(David J. Phillip/AP Photo)

• The Seattle Seahawks
I still think Mora is getting off easy considering the Seahawks' amount of talent. At the very least, Seattle should be competitive in games with a team like Houston. There isn't any sustained nastiness defensively. It looks like a finesse unit. The offensive line can be blamed for only so long. If Mora can't squeeze something more out of the ample talent on this team next season, there has to be some accountability.

• Carolina Panthers coach John Fox
Sunday was a chance for Fox to reverse the momentum that is going in the other direction on him. The Panthers reportedly haven't talked about a contract extension, and Carolina's offense can't maintain any consistency. There is a reason you're hearing Bill Cowher's name in connection with this job and not with any others. And that's not good for Fox.

• The Jacksonville Jaguars playoff hopes
The loss to Miami is crushing. The games against Indianapolis and in New England would be upsets if Jacksonville pulled either of them out, and that road tilt in a chilly Cleveland isn't looking so easy anymore, either. This is where that lack of a pass rush and an inconsistent offensive line will really hurt. And if quarterback David Garrard(notes) struggles the rest of the way, that Tim Tebow talk will only amplify.

• The St. Louis Rams
There have been some hurtful losses this season, but the 47-7 blowout to Tennessee takes the cake. Not only were the Rams embarrassed, they clearly felt disrespected by a late passing touchdown by the Titans. Suddenly it feels like all the strides in the right direction have been erased. The challenge now will be keeping a straight face in front of the public. I would be surprised if Steven Jackson doesn't vent at some point.



Derrick Mason had a 62-yard touchdown reception against the Lions.
(Nick Wass/AP Photo)

Loved: Derrick Mason's(notes) sick 62-yard touchdown catch and run in the second quarter against Detroit. Mason was blasted on the play by Phillip Buchanon(notes) and Marvin White(notes), who sandwiched him after the catch. Mason held onto the ball, stayed up and went for the touchdown, despite being in obvious pain. Unbelievable toughness by Mason.

Loathed: The fact that I thought Detroit's Daunte Culpepper(notes) had worked himself back into being a starting quarterback in the NFL. He is clearly a backup at this stage of his career. I don't know what I was thinking.

Loved: Andre Johnson's 64-yard touchdown catch and run in the first quarter against Seattle. It was almost effortless. Johnson's ability to pull away from smaller cornerbacks in a foot race is amazing when you consider he weighs 230 pounds – 40-50 more than the corners he faces.

Loathed: Michael Jenkins'(notes) dropped touchdown in the second quarter against the Saints. Coverage was blown and Jenkins was wide open. The ball wasn't overthrown. It hit him in the hands and he dropped it. He redeemed himself later with a touchdown, but the Falcons couldn't afford missed opportunities against New Orleans.

Loved: Ryan Grant's 62-yard touchdown run in the first quarter against the Bears. The seal and hole created by left tackle Chad Clifton(notes) and fullback John Kuhn(notes) was sheer perfection. Having the tackle spots finally figured out has been a huge development for the Packers.

Loathed: The crazy late hit by Cincinnati's Rey Maualuga(notes) on Minnesota's Darius Reynaud(notes) on a second-quarter kickoff return by the Vikings. Reynaud was almost two yards out of bounds when Maualuga hit him. It was a totally foolish play that allowed the Vikings to start on Cincinnati's 43-yard line. The Vikings scored a touchdown on the drive.

Reggie Bush (L) had two receiving touchdowns against the Falcons.
(Paul Abell/AP Photo)

Loved: Seeing Reggie Bush(notes) finally start to impact the New Orleans offense again. When he plays well, he adds another dynamic dimension to the Saints. It's almost absurd the number of talented pieces on that offense. How about a round of applause for general manager Mickey Loomis?

Loathed: Cincinnati's inability to get and keep Cedric Benson(notes) involved in the short passing game. The Bengals have a lot of opportunities to run screens to Benson or find him on check downs. He could play a Ray Rice role in the passing game, but rarely gets an opportunity since coming back from injury.

Loved: Jay Cutler's(notes) fantastic third-quarter touchdown throw to Devin Aromashodu(notes), which was beautifully put on Aromashodu's back shoulder, allowing him to stop on a dime for the score as Charles Woodson's(notes) momentum took him out of the play. There are maybe four quarterbacks in the league who could throw this touchdown.

Loathed: Cutler's horrible interception to Woodson in the first quarter, which was meant for Aromashodu. The pass was simply poor. Sometimes, Cutler can be the best and worst player on the Bears in the same game. No wonder Chicago fans are so frustrated this season.