On a day when road teams ruled and upsets reigned, the NFL unmasked three playoff pretenders yesterday. Stripped to their shortcomings were the Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons.
They all lost as home favorites in Week 10, slipping to the edge of playoff contention, even with seven games left. Here's how the witching hour arrived for all three:
The Jaguars came down with a full-fledged quarterback controversy in a 13-10 loss to the Houston Texans. David Garrard, who had supplanted Byron Leftwich, threw four interceptions as the Jaguars fell to the Texans (3-6) for the second time this season.
Leftwich has a nagging ankle injury, the reason the Jaguars gave for his benching. Both quarterbacks have lost to the Texans this season, hardly an endorsement for either. Garrard was a fourth-round pick in 2002 in the Tom Coughlin regime. Leftwich was the seventh choice in the 2003 draft by Coughlin's successor, Jack Del Rio.
If Garrard continues to play, it's a clear concession that the team blew the 2003 draft. At 5-4, the Jaguars have no chance of catching the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South and must bank on a wild-card berth.
The Vikings would have a quarterback controversy if they had someone other than Brooks Bollinger backing up Brad Johnson. Playing against the worst pass defense in the league, Johnson produced just two touchdowns in a 23-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers. This came one week after he generated one field goal in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
As inevitably happens when a team loses confidence in one phase of its game, Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield last week suggested that new coach Brad Childress' offense was predictable. At 4-5, Childress may have a tough time matching Mike Tice's 9-7 record of last season.
Then there are the Falcons. A week after they lost to the Detroit Lions (1-6), they lost to the Cleveland Browns (2-6). Last season, Atlanta lost to the Packers (1-7) at home. Apparently, the Falcons have a problem playing to the level of the opposition.
They also have a continuing problem with Michael Vick's progression as a passing quarterback. Vick hit just 16 of 40 passes (40 percent) with two interceptions and lost one fumble. In the team's past two games, he's just 33-for-72.
No 'D' in Cincinnati
What separates the Ravens (7-2) from the Cincinnati Bengals (4-5) in the AFC North?
In the most entertaining game of the day -- there were 975 total yards in offense -- the Bengals blew a 28-7 halftime lead and lost to the San Diego Chargers, 49-41. San Diego outscored the Bengals 42-13 in the second half, scoring touchdowns on its first five possessions.
Philip Rivers produced three passing touchdowns and LaDainian Tomlinson scored four rushing touchdowns against the porous and injury-depleted Bengals' defense.
The Bengals ran up 545 total yards and still couldn't win. With a brutally tough schedule, they'll have a difficult time getting back to the playoffs this season.
The mystique is gone in New England. Even Bill Belichick's former underlings are going into Foxborough and roughing up his Patriots now.
Eric Mangini's New York Jets handed Belichick his first two-game losing streak in four years with a 17-14 win. When it was over, Belichick gave his former defensive coordinator a perfunctory handshake without a word, continuing a cold war that began when Mangini took the Jets' job.
Belichick has such disdain that he can't bring himself to say Mangini's name in a media setting. It's a strange way to treat someone who helped him win three Super Bowls.
Great escape for Colts
The unbeaten Colts narrowly escaped with their ninth win of the season against the Buffalo Bills. They gave the Bills a touchdown on a fumble and caught a break when Rian Lindell was wide right on a potential go-ahead, 41-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
After the miss, the Colts ran out the last 6:22 on the clock, and they did it in atypical fashion. Quarterback Peyton Manning threw just two passes -- for a total of 5 yards -- in that last possession. Joseph Addai got the ball seven times, six in a row at one point, to grind out four first downs.
Steelers' run game returns
Turnovers have ravaged the Pittsburgh Steelers in defense of their Super Bowl, but they had none yesterday and still surrendered 31 points to the New Orleans Saints.
In the past four weeks, the Steelers have given up an average of 30.8 points per game. That suggests there's more to the team's slide than just quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's slump. Roethlisberger threw for three touchdowns in the 38-31 win over the Saints, but more importantly, got a major contribution from Willie Parker (213 rushing yards, two touchdowns).
Road teams won 10 games and lost only five yesterday. Six of those wins -- by the Browns, Packers, 49ers, Texans, Jets, Bears -- came as road underdogs.