At crucial stage of season, young QBs seize spotlight

ON THE NFL

Gameday

December 25, 2006|By KEN MURRAY

If reputations are forged in December's stretch run, then Philip Rivers, Jay Cutler and Vince Young all took a giant leap forward yesterday.

If the ghosts of December come calling in the offseason, surely they will haunt the Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants.

Heroes and goats were surfacing in unlikely places yesterday.

An extra-point snap that sailed wide in Denver very well might keep the Bengals home in January. A pass that was completed deep in Seattle might prevent the Ravens from gaining precious home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. And a field goal that was down the middle in Houston almost certainly meant the Colts will have to play on wild-card weekend.

Here's a rundown on the drama of Week 16.

Big winners

Rivers erased 58 minutes of brutal quarterbacking when he launched a 37-yard touchdown strike to Vincent Jackson with 29 seconds left in Seattle to squeeze the San Diego Chargers past the Seahawks, 20-17. More important, the pass enabled the Chargers to keep the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC ahead of the Ravens.

What was surprising was how easily Jackson got behind the Seahawks' secondary. Rivers completed just 10 of 30 passes but perhaps validated his selection last week to the Pro Bowl.

Cutler gave Denver enough big plays in the passing game (two touchdowns) to allow the Broncos (9-6) to outlast the Bengals, 24-23, and take control of the fifth seed ahead of the New York Jets, who play tonight, and four other 8-7 teams. This is what the Broncos expected from veteran Jake Plummer, and, absent that, it was the reason coach Mike Shanahan made the switch to a rookie late in the season.

Is there anything Young can't do? The rookie quarterback has brought the Tennessee Titans back from an 0-5 start to make an unlikely run at the postseason. In Buffalo, he orchestrated his fourth comeback in the fourth quarter or overtime to beat the Bills, 30-29, after trailing 29-20.

Young threw for two touchdowns and ran 36 yards for another to dispatch the Bills, who had won five of their past seven. Even with a six-game winning streak, the Titans (8-7) will need lots of help next week, along with a win over the New England Patriots, to reach the playoffs.

Big losers

Playing on the road after a big Monday night game, the Bengals pushed the Broncos to the wall, but couldn't convert an extra-point attempt that would have gotten them to overtime.

Cincinnati was poised to tie the score after Carson Palmer threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 41 seconds left in regulation. But on the extra point, center Brad St. Louis fired an errant snap that sailed through holder Kyle Larson's hands and saved the Broncos.

The Bengals can still make the playoffs, but would have clinched a playoff berth by beating Denver.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are the Jekyll and Hyde of the NFL. They beat the Dallas Cowboys and Colts, but lost twice to the Houston Texans this season. Yesterday, they dropped a 24-21 decision to the Patriots at home despite getting a 131-yard rushing game from Maurice Jones-Drew. It was a game in which Tom Brady willed New England to victory, clinching the AFC East title.

When Houston's Kris Brown made a 48-yard field goal at game's end, the Colts lost their grip on the No. 2 seed in the AFC, surrendering it to the Ravens. It was Indianapolis' fourth loss in the past six games.

The Colts' decrepit defense sprang another leak when it couldn't contain Houston running back Ron Dayne, a former Heisman Trophy winner who had failed with two previous teams. Dayne played most of the game with an ankle injury and still ran over the Colts for 153 yards and two touchdowns.

The Colts have as much chance of getting to the Super Bowl as the goober in coach Tony Dungy's television commercial has of getting a second date.

Giants fans were serenading coach Tom Coughlin in the second half of an ugly 30-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints. It wasn't a love chorus.

Coughlin has overseen - and been unable to stop - the Giants' slide into oblivion. They were 6-2 at midseason, threatening the Chicago Bears for the NFC's top seed. Now they've lost six of seven, staggering to the finish line.

Befitting of the torpid NFC, the Giants aren't eliminated from the playoffs yet.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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