SAN FRANCISCO – Even from 2,300 miles away, as he talked about the dramatic pregame speech he gave to his players before they fought for their season Sunday afternoon, it was obvious that Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher was exactly where he wants to be heading into the final NFL weekend of 2007.
On paper, the Titans face a stiff challenge, needing a victory over the 13-2 Indianapolis Colts at the RCA Dome next Sunday night to become the AFC's sixth and last playoff team. But given where Tennessee stood heading into Week 16, all Fisher wanted was a chance – and he knows how passionately and aggressively the Titans will play against a Colts team that is already locked into the conference's No. 2 seed.
"We'll chase 'em all the way up the tunnel if we have to," Fisher said by phone from Nashville after a wild day of postseason pole-position reshuffling, including his team's pivotal 10-6 victory over the New York Jets.
If you think people like you (heavily engaged fans) and I (semi-hardened impartial analysts) get excited by the intense mood swings that accompany the playoff push, try imagining what it must have been like in Fisher's office at LP Field Sunday afternoon as the final minutes of the Bengals-Browns game unfolded. As his players spent the eight or 10 minutes between the end of warmups and pregame introductions blasting tunes, meditating or doing whatever they had to do to get their game faces on before battling the Jets, Fisher sat in a small room with sons Brandon and Trent watching the Bengals try to close out a game they led 19-14.
At stake: The Browns, 9-5 going into that game, would have clinched a playoff spot with a victory, leaving the Titans (8-6 going in) with only a remote postseason prospect: win twice and hope that the Steelers (10-5) would lose their finale against the Ravens.
However, a victory by the Bengals – 5-9 going in, and coming off an embarrassing defeat to the 49ers in San Francisco – would put the Titans in control.
Fisher and Sons (for you "Six Feet Under" fans) were in mourning when Cincinnati halfback Kenny Watson fumbled with 1:48 remaining and the Browns recovered at their 17-yard line. Cleveland, which had scored 51 points in its first meeting with the Bengals, now needed a mere touchdown to get to the playoffs.
By 3:03 p.m. Central Time, the precise minute when Fisher needed to gather his players before sending them out onto the field (and 12 minutes before kickoff), the Browns had driven to the Cincinnati 35. It was fourth-and-1 with six seconds to go, and Fisher couldn't stick around to wait for the climax.
The TVs in the main locker room had been turned off since halftime of the Cleveland-Cincinnati game, and Fisher didn't know whether to fill in his players on what was happening. The safe move was to keep them uniformed and try to get them to focus on the Jets. But Fisher, as he walked to the center of the locker room, figured, What the hell?
"OK, guys, here's the deal," Fisher said. "The Bengals lead 19-14, and the Browns have the ball on the 35-yard-line with six seconds to go and time for one last pass to the end zone."
It was so quiet, you could hear 53 stomachs drop.
"It's going to be incomplete, and the rest will be up to us," Fisher proclaimed. "Congratulations – now let's go out and win and get to the playoffs."
The room erupted just as Fisher's smiling sons, who'd been instructed to reveal the game's outcome to their father via hand-signals, entered and flashed the thumbs-up sign in unison. It hadn't quite played out the way their dad had predicted – Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson had scrambled to the 29 for a first-down with one second left before overthrowing Kellen Winslow in the end zone on the final play – but the upshot was the same.
"I told you I have a crystal ball," Fisher said to his pumped-up players. "It's the same one I had last year."
A year ago, after then-rookie quarterback Vince Young led the Titans on a six-game winning streak, Tennessee went into its final regular season game with an 8-7 record and a remote chance at the postseason. Four things needed to happen for the Titans to get in, the last of which was a victory at home over the Patriots. To his players' amazement, the first three required results (losses by the Bengals, Jaguars and Broncos) played out in Tennessee's favor. Alas, a 40-23 defeat to the Pats ended the Titans' hopes and allowed the Chiefs to sneak into the playoffs instead.
A similar disappointment could await Fisher's team in Indy Sunday, but he's hardly daunted. "What do we have to lose?" he asked, laughing.
The real question is: What do the Colts have to lose? And the answer is: everything. Indy aims to go into Foxborough in January, hand the Patriots their first defeat and defend its Super Bowl championship. It would be awfully tough to do that without, say, Peyton Manning, and losing any key player to injury would be a significant blow.
The Titans, who had six sacks against the Jets, might be the league's most physical team, even when they're not fighting for their playoff lives. Indy coach Tony Dungy knows this, and no matter what he says this week, I don't think he's foolish enough to risk playing Manning and his other mainstays for more than a series or two.
Were the desperate Titans the ones facing the 15-0 Patriots on Saturday night, rather than the Giants (who've already clinched a playoff berth), it would be very, very interesting to see how New England coach Bill Belichick approached the game. I don't expect Dungy to mess around on Sunday night, as players from 30 teams and a rapt nation watch the Titans and Colts go at it on NBC, as per the network's choice (thanks to the flexible-scheduling provision of the league's TV contract).
"Did you hear they flexed us?" Fisher asked excitedly. "It's gonna be a lot of fun."
Because of the way the tiebreakers fall, the Browns' Sunday afternoon home game against the 49ers is now immaterial. If Tennessee wins, it's in; if the Titans lose, Cleveland gets the final playoff spot.
How will it all play out? At 8:15 p.m. Eastern next Sunday night, the crystal ball will give way to a leather one – and we can all sit back and appreciate the drama.
STORY OF MY LIFE
Some coaches of playoff-bound teams hesitate to pull their starters out of seemingly meaningless games, preferring to maintain momentum and sharpness for the postseason. Belichick, despite a 21-point lead over the Miami Dolphins Sunday, kept Tom Brady in the game until the second half's two-minute warning.
"It's a deep philosophical question," Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden said an hour after his team's 21-19 defeat to the San Francisco 49ers at Monster Park, punctuating his words with that rebel-in-the-back-of-the-classroom smirk. "It's hard, because you respect the game, but you also understand that this is the most exciting time there is – a chance to go to the playoffs – and you don't want to do anything to jeopardize your chances. The critics will decide whether you're right or wrong."
True to his nature, Gruden staked out his position and stuck to it without blinking, pulling quarterback Jeff Garcia and most of his other starters late in the second quarter of Sunday's game. Though the NFC South champion Bucs (9-6) still had a shot of catching the NFC West champion Seahawks for the No. 3 overall playoff seed, Gruden decided the possibility wasn't likely or important enough to warrant the accompanying risk to his players' health.
When No. 3 wideout Maurice Stovall went down with an apparent broken arm four minutes into the second quarter, Gruden took it as a sign from the football gods that his instincts were spot-on.
"I saw the Steelers lose a great running back (Willie Parker, who broke his leg in the team's victory over the Rams on Thursday)," Gruden said. "I saw Terrell Owens go down (with an ankle injury in the Cowboys' victory over the Panthers on Saturday). And then I saw Maurice Stovall lying there and our whole team gathered around him. We've already lost 15 players to injury this season. If we lose anymore, I'll be out there playing."
The Bucs' scrubs nearly got it done anyway, as backup quarterback Luke McCown threw a touchdown pass to No. 2 tight end Jerramy Stevens with 1:20 remaining. But on the two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game, Michael Clayton, the new No. 3 wideout now that Stovall is out, caught McCown's pass with one foot out of bounds.
"We're not tanking," veteran cornerback Ronde Barber insisted afterward. "We're just not trying to win."
Right. Thanks for clearing that up.
After another glorified exhibition game against the Panthers on Sunday, the Bucs will try to win a playoff game for the first time since their bludgeoning of the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII five seasons ago. Now locked in at No. 4, Tampa Bay will host the Giants (locked in at No. 5) in a first-round game. If both the Bucs and Seahawks win in the opening round, Tampa Bay would travel to Dallas to face the top-seeded Cowboys while Seattle would go to Green Bay to battle the second-seeded Packers.
Given the potential climate issues at Lambeau Field and the possibility that Owens will be sidelined or limited during the Cowboys' divisional-round game, I'm not sure that having to play Dallas is a tougher draw.
Gruden, I'm sure, views it as a deep philosophical question.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Fat and happy: Thanks to the outcomes of Sunday's games, the Cowboys, Seahawks and Jaguars – and, to a lesser extent, the Steelers – can do some serious damage to their Christmas dinner spreads without feeling guilty. The Cowboys (No. 1 seed) and Seahawks (No. 3) join the Packers (No. 2) and Bucs (No. 4) in being locked into their respective seeds in the NFC; the Jags are guaranteed the No. 5 AFC seed, while the Chargers, pending Monday night's home game against the Broncos, retain the inside track for the No. 3 seed ahead of the Steelers, who clinched the AFC North title with the Browns' defeat.
• Remember when Jacksonville was offensively challenged? Would you believe the Jags have now scored 24 points or more in nine consecutive games, and that they've exceeded 400 yards in each of the last five? If the Chargers keep playing hard in an effort to clinch the No. 3 seed (and avoid a first-round matchup with the Jaguars, who beat them 24-17 in Week 11), that's why.
• As much as Fisher had faith that the Browns wouldn't score on that final desperation pass, Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones was similarly confident. "Right before that play, I looked into the eyes of our young guys and saw how much they wanted it and how focused they were, and I wasn't worried at all," Jones said late Sunday night by phone. "All week long, Coach (Marvin Lewis) talked to us about trusting each other, especially the guys who were replacing some of our injured players. It was so gratifying that we could do that and accomplish something like this together – as a defense and as a team." The Bengals played without seven starters and still managed to bum out a whole lot of residents in the state they call home.
• Among the many intriguing developments from the Redskins' 32-21 road victory over the Vikings Sunday night was this stunning revelation: It turns out Joe Gibbs can count after all. With Minnesota having cut Washington's lead to 11 in the fourth quarter, Skins quarterback Todd Collins fumbled near midfield and the Vikings' Kevin Williams recovered. But Gibbs, after noticing that Minnesota had 12 players on the field when the ball was snapped, challenged the call and earned a replay reversal to retain possession, and the Skins went on to score the clinching TD. If the Skins beat Dallas and pull off this unlikely playoff run, this will go down as one of Gibbs's best coaching jobs – and there have been a lot of them.
• I emailed Michael Strahan a few hours after the Giants' emphatic victory in frigid, snowy Buffalo and asked him how cold it was on the sidelines when his team went down 14-0 in the first quarter. "It was cold as hell when we won," he replied. "The weather the last two weeks has been ridiculous! Makes you ponder retirement … Lol." I love the playful reference (to all of the drama during training camp over whether Strahan would call it quits) and that Strahan, one of the greatest players of his era, is so willing to goof on himself. The Giants, as the No. 5 or 6 seed in the NFC, won't be home for the playoffs, but their 7-1 road record should give them confidence.
• The Niners' victory facilitated a cheery sendoff for 14th-year defensive tackle Bryant Young, who was carried onto the field by teammates at the conclusion of his final home game, then did a victory half-lap for adoring fans. Young, the last link to the Niners' fifth and last Super Bowl team (and the Eddie DeBartolo era), said he was more emotional than he expected on Sunday, but he managed to be as fundamentally sound and disruptive as usual. Among the former teammates who showed up to honor BY were Harris Barton, Junior Bryant and Derrick Deese, the latter also an ex-Buc. It's always a pleasure to see the feisty Deese, but it sucked not hearing him on Fox's NFL GameTime on the drive to Monster Park. In case you haven't heard Deese (with host Brian Webber), he's refreshingly unrestrained. Whereas most game-day radio personalities tend to be smarmy, cheeky or both, Deese is sincere, surly and opinionated.
• That was the first interception for a touchdown of Brian Urlacher's eight-year NFL career? Who knew? Something tells me that 49ers rookie inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who looks like a young Urlacher, will get one of those before too long. In the meantime, Willis validated his Pro Bowl credentials on Sunday with another monster game at Monster: 20 tackles according to the 49ers' statistics (which are unofficial), two sacks, a forced fumble and a pass defensed. Other than that, he didn't really do a whole lot.
• "I'm a grown-ass man!" Cardinals wideout Anquan Boldin is fond of saying to opposing defenders who try to cover him – and I can't imagine that Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes wasted much energy dissenting on Sunday. Interim Atlanta coach Emmitt Thomas had Grimes, recently elevated from the practice squad, on Boldin for much of the Cardinals' 34-31 overtime victory, and the outcome wasn't surprising. Despite hip and toe injuries, "Q" caught 13 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the fastest player in NFL history (67 games, to previous record-holder Kellen Winslow Sr.'s 72) to have 400 receptions. If this guy ever gets into the playoffs, watch out.
• Finally, has anyone seen the latest Director's Cup standings? I know, I know – just think how much more of a lead the school currently in first place would have if its football team had lived up to midseason expectations. Oh well; the view is still pretty damned cool.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Thank you Browns and Vikings – you've been plucky and surprising and a little inspirational, and I certainly never expected either of you to be anywhere within sniffing distance of the postseason. But if it turns out that the Titans and Redskins win next week and you miss the playoffs, you'll have nobody but yourselves to blame. If the two organizations had one thing in common going into the season, it was that each seemed especially shaky at the quarterback position. Browns coach Romeo Crennel lucked out with Derek Anderson, who replaced Charlie Frye in Week 1 and staved off rookie Brady Quinn while guiding one of the league's most prolific offenses – until Sunday, when he threw four interceptions against the Bengals. Vikings coach Brad Childress stubbornly decreed that second-year passer Tarvaris Jackson was his guy. After a nice run that coincided with the Vikings' climb out of a 3-6 hole, Jackson has thrown five interceptions (and lost a fumble) over the past two games.
• Speaking of struggling quarterbacks, Brett Favre had his second rough outing (in the Packers' 35-7 defeat at Chicago) in Green Bay's past four games. That's probably nothing to be alarmed about, especially given how brilliantly the 38-year-old veteran has played for most of this season. But physically and mentally, Favre could definitely use a rest, and hopefully Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy will pull him after a series or two in the finale against the Lions.
• I'll never forget the scene I saw just inside the tunnel at Lambeau Field shortly before the Packers' 35-14 divisional-round playoff victory over the 49ers in January '97: Shivering San Francisco punter Tommy Thompson blurted out, to no one in particular, "I can't feel my hands" – at which point I knew it would be a rough day for the visitors. Eleven years later, with the prospect of at least one home playoff game in the very near future, I wonder what Packers punter Jon Ryan is thinking. Ryan had one of the most miserable games imaginable at Solider Field Sunday, fumbling a snap, getting two punts blocked (something that hadn't happened to a Packers punter in 12 years), and shanking another attempt that went just nine yards.
• On the flip side, the 49ers' Andy Lee, who is headed for the Pro Bowl, placed three punts inside the 20 against the Buccaneers, increasing his league-leading total to 38 (one shy of the NFL record set by the Ravens' Kyle Richardson in 1999). And lest you think Lee lacks versatility, he has 47 punts of 50 yards or greater. Perhaps Lee should take Niners coach Mike Nolan and beleaguered offensive coordinator Jim Hostler to Hawaii as his guests, as sometimes it's all about opportunity. For all we know the Patriots' Chris Hanson is a stud, but he has punted only 42 times in '07.
• Here's a twisted take on how the Giants should approach Saturday's regular season finale against the Patriots, a game that has no meaning for New York, from a New Jersey resident I know: "I think they should rest a lot of their starters but play Eli (Manning) the whole game in the hope that he'll get hurt." Yes, I realize that Manning fumbled five times (losing two) and threw a pair of interceptions against the Bills on Sunday, but … damn, that's cold.
• All you need to know about the Saints' 2007 season: Trailing the Eagles by a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half, wideout David Patten was stopped inches shy of the goal line on a first-and-goal reception. Coach Sean Payton called three consecutive runs (one by fullback Mike Karney, two by halfback Aaron Stecker), and the Eagles repelled all three, then drove 98 yards for a touchdown. This team will retool and come back stronger in '08, but despite the occasional tease, the '07 Saints were a flawed and disappointing operation.
• The Raiders were a joke in Jacksonville, losing 49-11 (with eight of the points coming in the final seconds) and at one point late in the first half incurring four personal fouls in succession. But give cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha credit for his postgame candor. "It wasn't embarrassing," Asomugha told reporters. "It was mortifying if I can use that word." Of course you can, Nmandi, given that you attended the world's greatest institute of higher learning.
• It was a big day for Alex Smith at Monster Park. Alas, I'm not talking about the injured 49ers quarterback but the Bucs' tight end of the same name, who had six receptions for 79 yards. And no, as far as I know, Nolan didn't call him a wuss from the sidelines.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How Santa Claus can get to millions and millions of homes around the world, go down all of the chimneys, deposit gifts and devour the milk and cookies – all in one night.
2. The notion that the Giants somehow owe it to the NFL to go all-out against the Patriots Saturday night as New England attempts to pull off the league's first 16-0 regular season. Here are the people to whom the Giants are obligated: The ones with "NY" on their helmets. Their job is to be as healthy, rested and prepared as they possibly can be for the playoffs – period. That the Patriots view this as a hugely important game is irrelevant, as is the fact that so many of us are seeking drama. The Giants, who've got a bunch of banged-up players and don't have the luxury of a first-round bye, should tune out the noise and play their scrubs.
READING TEA LEAVES
Fresh off another productive weekend for the Reading Football Club (more in The Gameface on Friday), Royals keeper Marcus Hahnemann tries to keep his perfect Monday Night Football record intact for next season with the following pick: "When I was in Denver with the (Colorado) Rapids, the Broncos were so good and the traffic on the road during their games was a lot less. That is how big a football town it was. I am going with a Broncos upset over the Chargers."
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
Nolan, bro: This rally-at-the-end-of-the-season thing isn't doing it for me. In your three years as the 49ers' coach, you are 10-29 over the first 13 games of the season and 6-2 (so far) in the final three. That's supposed to be a positive thing? Dude, that makes it worse . What it says is that nobody, nobody gets his team motivated for a meaningless football game better than Mike Nolan. The meaningful games? Not so much …
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Great read on the Giants. But I have to say that the Giants have been a surprise this year. The 'so-called' experts picked them to win five games and finish last in the NFC East. They have won (10). So an article about another 'swoon' isn't fair. The media cannot have it both ways. You predict the team to be a dog, they have a surprisingly good year and you write a negative article. Happy Holidays."
Here's the deal, Jim: The word "media" is plural. We do not function as a monolithic entity. Some of us are surprised by the Giants' success, others less so. (I seem to remember picking the Cowboys and Redskins to make the playoffs, but I also believed the Giants and Eagles were viable contenders in a strong division.) Had they lost their final three games and gone 1-7 over the second half of the season, the word "swoon" would have been applicable. To their credit, they came through in Buffalo.
"Wow – a 'Tommy' homage! I am amused by the idea that Romo and the Cowboys have had their two bad days due to Tony's latest starlet being in the stadium. Might it not have more to do with the fact that their opponent both times was the Philadelphia Eagles? They were on the field for the purpose of causing his bad day."
The theory was amusing until T.O. decided to play along. Then it simply became confusing.
"Comment, not a question. Well done with the song parody! I've loved 'Sally Simpson' for the better part of three decades and your take on it was brilliant. The item I most agree with, however, is the last line – forget the celebrity dating except if it's Beyonce … "
New York City
Jay-Z is going to come slap us both around, isn't he?
"I had no idea anyone of your apparent age would ever have heard Tommy. Maybe that stuff was as good as I used to think it was. Cheers."
San Jose, Calif.
Thanks to my dad, I knew 'Tommy' lyrics by heart before I started kindergarten. As for the stuff, did you mean the music or something else?
"Loved the TMBG Istanbul (Not Constantinople) reference (I assume you were referring to TMBG's version). You are so much cooler than I thought."
Thief Rivers Fall, Minn.
Ha, thanks. It was, after all a column about the Giants. But if I had been referring to the Four Lads' version, how much of a hit would my coolness quotient have taken?
"From the 'Don't Get Yourself In Trouble With The PC Crowd Dept.' Is former babysitter Emily Azevedo a brakeman, a brakewoman or a brakeperson? Don't worry Mike, I got your six covered even from down here in Guatemala. Keep on rockin' in the free world! Bubba-san."
The U.S. bobsled federation calls her a brakeman. I call her a baller.
Here's one reason: Trent Cole's teammates didn't block Osi a whole lot, as his seven sacks against the Eagles attest.
"Yet another priceless lesson from some of your readers: While correcting someone's grammar is incredibly annoying, constantly complaining about having your grammar corrected is all the rage!"
If I didn't know better, I'd think that some of them simply like to complain.
"Hi, Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on gays and feminists. That is all I need to say. Mr. Silver writes an opinion column. An opinion column, do you know what he puts in it? Let me give you give you a hint, it starts with his opinion and ends with you suck. You see that is my opinion. I am not going to your office and telling you that you are a stupid-headed stupid head who needs to shut up. I am giving my opinion. He gets paid to give his and you get paid to do … something, hopefully. But does he go to your office and say you are pouring my coffee wrong or that is not how you pump gas? No, I did not think so. Give constructive criticism. Do not say you are dumb, you should not have this job. OK that rule starts after this rant. Go Patriots, go Brett Favre, even if your legs fall off."
If I ever become too ill (or, to borrow from Katy in "Animal House," too well) to get the Trippin' section done, I'm asking Al to handle it for me.
"Comment … Why are you so jealous of the Patroits to constantly drag them across the coals? Why so much hatred? Your a sad excuse for a man Silver. To you, it don't matter what I think. But you a poor excuse for a jounalist."
Terry L. Just
And you a … oh, never mind. Have a blessed day.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK
"It's rough, bro. I hated to not play this game."
Text Sunday night from injured Saints halfback Deuce McAllister, after watching his team fail on three consecutive rushing attempts from the 1-yard-line or closer in the 38-23 defeat to the Eagles that all but killed their playoff hopes.