NFL Weekly Recap: Week 14

Jake LockerIt’s become almost routine this season: the Tim Tebow led Denver Broncos will struggle for three quarters, before becoming world beaters over the final period. Whether or not that will continue remains to be seen, but for now it certainly appears that Tebow will lead the Broncos to a surprising playoff berth.
Tebow wasn’t the only leader of a comeback on Sunday. Houston’s rookie T.J. Yates made it 2 for 2, winning his second start and clinching a Texans’ playoff berth. We’ll talk about all that and more in this week’s recap.

Rookie quarterbacks shoulder their teams’ playoff hopes
In a division with teams led by Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub, and Matt Hasselbeck, no one would have expected that the fate of the division would have come down to two rookie quarterbacks. But that’s exactly what happened on Sunday. For Houston, it was their rookie third string turned started T.J. Yates that was looking his second win as a starter, this time against the Cincinnati Bengals. Meanwhile in Nashville it was rookie Jake Locker, who took the majority of the snaps after Hasselbeck injured his calf. A Houston win coupled with a Tennessee loss would give Houston their first division title and playoff berth in franchise history. Were these young players up to the task?

For the first three quarters in Cincinnati, things didn’t look too promising for Yates and the Texans. A 1st quarter interception magnified the Texans’ struggles to move the ball. It was a very rough start for the former Tar Heel, who saw Arian Foster give up a costly fumble inside the Bengals’ five yard line, costing the Texans another shot at points. The run game was a problem all day for Houston. Foster, who had been playing at high level all year long, was shut down by the Bengals defense. He finished the game with only a 2.7 ypc average, and a long run of just nine yards.

The Texans’ potent running game was supposed to be what kept the pressure off of Yates. But with Foster’s production nearly non existent, that plan was out the window. Down by six points with just over two minutes left to play, the weight of the entire Houston Texans franchise was on the shoulders of their rookie quarterback.

If Yates was rattled, he didn’t show it. He looked every part of a veteran NFL quarterback in the final two minutes. He completed the passes he had to complete, and on a third and 15 he was able to scramble for a crucial first down. But with eight seconds remaining, he found himself in a situation that could force even a veteran quarterback to crumble. With just a few seconds remaining, Yates and the Texans were just six yards away from their first ever play off berth.

But again, Yates didn’t look like a quarterback under pressure. He was both cool and collected as he dropped back, made his reads, and with two seconds left on the clock completed a touchdown pass to Kevin Walter. The strike completed a remarkable comeback, and made the most important drive in Texans’ history a resounding success.

Jake Locker, on the other hand, would have under a minute for his come back attempt. He had played well in the first significant playing time that he’d seen (he finished the game with 282 yards passing, 1 TD passing and 1 TD rushing), but he would need to elevate his game even more if the Titans were going to upset the Saints.

Locker was able to get the Titans down to the five yard line, but unlike Yates, Locker looked like a rookie on the game’s final snap. With no receivers open, Locker scrambled instead of throwing the ball away to allow for one more play. The decision proved to be a game ending one- Locker was unable to find any open receivers, and was sacked as time expired.

It was a bitter loss for Tennessee, but it wasn’t without a silver lining. Locker completed two passes of 45+ yards, displayed effective mobility, and gave the Titans’ offense a spark when it needed it the most. Of all the highly drafted rookie quarterbacks, Locker had played the least, but he showed the kind of promise you want to see from a young quarterback. His next step will likely come Sunday in Indianapolis, where it appears he will be making his first start in the place of Hasselbeck.

Surprise of the Week
Brian UrlacherAnother tight game involving the Denver Broncos led to more late game heroics by their quarterback Tim Tebow. Trailing 10-0 late in the 4th quarter, Tebow led a rally that ended in another overtime victory for the surging Broncos. And while the way Denver was able to mount another comeback behind the play of Tebow was amazing to watch, it’s a stretch to call it a surprise anymore. What was surprising, however, was one of Chicago’s star’s reaction to it.

When asked about Tebow’s play, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher simply stated that Tebow “was a good running back”. Julius Peppers took a shot at Tebow as well, saying that “he didn’t do anything special”. And while it’s true that no one (aside from Skip Bayless, anyway) is going to argue that Tebow is an elite passer, taking shots like this after a loss comes across as sour grapes. And coming from the face of the Chicago Bears franchise, it’s frankly embarrassing.

It’s without question that Tebow has a long way to develop before he can be considered a truly consistent passing threat in the NFL. But his footwork continues to improve from week to week, and he continues to make plays when it counts. That’s why it’s so confusing to hear statements from players like Urlacher insinuating that Tebow can’t throw the ball. He’s talking about a player that went 18-24 for 191 yards and a TD in the 4th quarter against the defense that he leads. If those are the numbers a running back can put up against the Bears, I’d hate to see Urlacher and the Bears go up against an actual quarterback.

There is no problem to be had with Urlacher feeling frustrated after losing a game Chicago desperately needed to win. Emotions are especially raw in the minutes after a game, and players will often say things that aren’t well thought out. But Urlacher’s comments reflect an attitude that many NFL defenses have taken concerning Tebow. They under estimate him because his playing style isn’t the same as the Tom Bradys of the league. But the time has come for that attitude to be put to rest. It’s clear now that Tebow can win games in the NFL with his style of play. And until defenses come to realize and respect that fact, the only shots they’ll be able to land on Tebow will be in the post game press conferences.

Rookie Watch
Blaine GabbertIn a year where rookie quarterbacks have seemed to flourish whenever given the opportunity, Jacksonville Jaguars rookie Blaine Gabbert has struggled to gain any momentum. He’s already been labeled a bust by many fans and media, and some have gone as far as to say Jacksonville should be on the market for a new quarterback in addition to their search for a new head coach. But are these judgments premature?

To put it lightly, Gabbert was thrown into a terrible situation for a rookie quarterback. It started in training camp, where he took almost exclusively second and third strings snaps. David Garrard was taking the first string reps, but then was released just prior to the beginning of the season. Gabbert was then thrown into the fire with hardly any practice with the starters.

Even worse for Gabbert is the fact that he has almost no weapons to utilize. Jacksonville made their biggest investment on offense in signing tight end Marcedes Lewis. Lewis has proven that to be a terrible investment, lacking in explosive ability or even consistent hands. The only consistent playmaker the Jaguars have is running back Maurice Jones Drew, and having a solid running back can only go so far in helping to develop a young quarterback.

The Jacksonville franchise has been the definition of instability throughout the year as well. When you factor in coaching changes, rumors of the team’s moving, and even the team being sold to a new owner, it’s clear that recipe for rookie quarterback’s success is simply not there. Gabbert’s rookie season was essentially doomed from the beginning.

All is not lost for Gabbert, however. He had what was probably the best game of his career on Sunday against Tampa Bay, fighting from a 0-14 deficit to lead Jacksonville to a 41-14 win. He finally looked comfortable in the pocket, and it resulted in his passing for 217 yards and two touchdowns in their win. The plays he made on Sunday should make it clear to Jacksonville fans that it’s far too soon to call Gabbert a bust just yet. A consistent coaching staff and a revamped offense should do wonders for his play in 2012.

Fantasy Notes
Ahmad BradshawAhmad Bradshaw committed the cardinal fantasy sin on Sunday, and it came at the worst possible time. In the first week of the fantasy playoffs, he was benched for the first half for a violation of team rules. For his owners, it was a crushing blow: he had no chance to make an impact in the game, and because it was the Sunday night game, his owners had basically no alternatives. It’s not a stretch to say his benching cost many fantasy players their season.

Another crushing blow for fantasy players came in Green Bay. Stud wide receiver Greg Jennings sprained his MCL and is likely going to miss the remainder of the regular season. It comes at an awful time for fantasy owners, as there simply aren’t any good options on the waiver wire to replace him at this stage of the season. The best bet will likely be to look to Donald Driver, but with the way Aaron Rodgers spreads the ball around it’s difficult to feel good about getting a consistent performance from any receiver outside of Jennings in the Packers offense.