Eight days after losing wide receiver Terrell Owens until at least Super Bowl Sunday because of a severe ankle sprain, Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid wasn't taking any chances that his club would suffer another debilitating injury Monday night in St. Louis.
He put tailback Brian Westbrook on the inactive list. He yanked quarterback Donovan McNabb in favor of Koy Detmer after one offensive series, then turned to third-string quarterback Jeff Blake in the fourth quarter. He sat down defensive end Jevon Kearse and sent home offensive tackle Tra Thomas to tend to a personal matter.
It had the look and feel of an August exhibition game, not a late-December game with major playoff implications for one team on the field and several others at home watching on television.
The result was a 20-7 loss to the Rams that dropped the Eagles to 13-2. The Eagles already had wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, but now Reid must hope that his strategy doesn't backfire.
The Eagles are a far different team without Owens. He had drawn the sort of heavy attention from opposing defenses this season that had opened things up for his teammates, particularly Westbrook, fellow wideout Todd Pinkston and tight ends L.J. Smith and Chad Lewis. McNabb had thrown more than twice as many passes to Owens as he'd directed toward any other Eagles wide receiver, and he'd evolved into a quarterback who would rather stay in the pocket than take off and run.
Now the Eagles probably will need McNabb to force the action more, to get out on the perimeter and improvise, putting defensive players in the uncomfortable position of having to make quick decisions about whether they think he'll run or pass. The Eagles might need to run the ball more often. They'll need Westbrook to be even more productive, perhaps lining up at receiver more often. They'll need Pinkston to be a go-to receiver, and they'll need wideouts Freddie Mitchell and Greg Lewis to play far more significant roles.
It's a transition that won't necessarily be quick or seamless, and Reid has given his offense only one game -- Sunday's regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals at Lincoln Financial Field -- as a dress rehearsal before the playoffs. The Eagles, after a first-round playoff bye, will be coming off a two-week layoff when they host an NFC semifinal on Jan. 15 or 16.
The Eagles' aura of NFC invincibility already had been punctured by narrow victories over the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys in their final two games with Owens in the starting lineup. They moved far closer back toward the NFC pack when Owens suffered a "high'' ankle sprain that was severe enough to require surgery last week, giving him only an outside chance to play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6 -- if, of course, the Eagles advance that far.
If they'd gone out and dominated the Rams on Monday night without Owens, the Eagles might have sent a message to the Atlanta Falcons, the Green Bay Packers, the Seattle Seahawks, the Minnesota Vikings and their other NFC pursuers that they still resembled the club that had lapped the field in the conference earlier in the season. But they didn't even try to do that, and now it's clear that they will enter the playoffs with serious questions about whether they are in danger after suffering another major postseason disappointment on the heels of losing the last three NFC title games. They have not demonstrated, after all, that they can win a game without Owens.
Reid's approach perhaps was validated to some degree when Chad Lewis and Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard suffered minor injuries early in the game. Lewis emerged with a strained triceps, and Sheppard with a bruised quadriceps. Rookie running back Thomas Tapeh dislocated his hip in the final minute and was to be transported back to Philadelphia via air ambulance.
Rams Coach Mike Martz gave further credence to the approach that Reid took when he called the artificial turf at the Edward Jones Dome the league's worst playing surface. Reid managed to move a game closer to the playoffs without Westbrook or McNabb getting hurt. And the offense functioned smoothly in the one series that McNabb did play, moving 63 yards for a touchdown, achieved on a pass from McNabb to Mitchell. The Eagles managed only 92 yards on offense the rest of the night.
If the Eagles sputter on offense in the playoffs and fall short of the Super Bowl again, Reid could end up regretting the opportunity he passed up Monday night to give his front-line players as much of a chance as possible to get accustomed to playing without Owens. And there's always a risk for a coach who has his players turn off the competitive switch during a season, then asks them to turn it back on. Things don't always rev back up so easily.
In a season in which wins have come so easily for his team, Reid was in a no-win situation Monday night. He might have been run out of Philadelphia if he'd played Westbrook or left McNabb in the game longer and one of them had suffered a significant injury. But plenty of coaches around the league say that the best approach in such a situation is to play all the players who are able to play, keep the team's mindset the same as it has been all season and just hope that no one gets hurt.
NFC Playoff Race Jumbled
The league reminds coaches at this time of the year that they are expected to field a competitive team to try to win every week, and the Eagles' approach to the Monday night game had an effect on the teams vying with the Rams for NFC playoff spots. Reid might have to answer to some unhappy coaches the next time he crosses paths with them at a league meeting.
A victory by the Eagles on Monday would have clinched the NFC West title for the Seahawks and a wild-card spot for the Vikings, and would have ensured that the winner of Sunday's game between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers in Charlotte would have gotten the NFC's other wild-card berth. The Rams would have been eliminated from playoff contention.
Now, the Seahawks are only a game ahead of the Rams in the NFC West entering the final weekend of the regular season, and St. Louis owns the tie-breaker edge if the two clubs finish tied by virtue of beating Seattle twice this season. The Seahawks already have clinched a playoff berth but must beat or tie the Falcons at home on Sunday or have the Rams lose to or tie the New York Jets to wrap up the division title.
The Vikings now enter the season's final weekend without a playoff spot ensured. They get a wild-card spot with a win or tie against the Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field, or with a loss or tie by the Rams or Panthers.
The Saints-Panthers winner now is not assured of a wild-card spot. The Panthers need a win by them and either a loss or tie by the Rams, a loss by the Vikings or a win or tie by Seattle (they also could reach the playoffs by tying the Saints if the Rams lose or tie). The Saints need a win by them and either a loss or tie by the Rams, a win or tie by the Vikings or a win or tie by Seattle.
The Rams, even if they lose the NFC West title, can get a wild-card spot with a win over the Jets and either a loss by the Vikings or a tie in the Saints-Panthers game.
Roethlisberger Likely to Sit Sunday
Pittsburgh Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger likely will sit out this weekend's game at Buffalo after suffering bruised rib cartilage during Sunday's victory over the Baltimore Ravens.
During his news conference today, Steelers Coach Bill Cowher did not rule out starting Roethlisberger on Sunday. Cowher indicated that Roethlisberger will try to throw in the coming days and will be evaluated at the end of the week. But a source familiar with the situation said late Monday night it's unlikely that Roethlisberger will play against the Bills.
Tests taken late Sunday and Monday on Roethlisberger's ribs, sternum and spleen did not reveal any serious injuries, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Cowher had not yet addressed the matter. But the Steelers likely will withhold Roethlisberger from the Bills game and give him three weeks to heal between the time he got hurt and the club's first playoff game. The Steelers (14-1) have clinched a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. They'll host an AFC semifinal at Heinz Field on Jan. 15 or 16, probably against the San Diego Chargers.
Cowher acknowledged today that he'll try to be smart about injuries this week, with the postseason in mind.
If Roethlisberger indeed is sidelined this weekend, veteran Tommy Maddox likely would make his first start since he suffered an elbow injury during a Week 2 loss at Baltimore and gave way to Roethlisberger, who has proceeded to win his first 13 NFL starts to stretch his winning streak going back to college to 26 consecutive starts.
If Roethlisberger's regular season is over, he will finish with 196 completions in 295 throws for 2,621 yards, with 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His passer rating of 98.1 ranks sixth in the NFL.
Maddox took over Sunday against the Ravens after Roethlisberger was forced to the sideline by the effects of a hit by linebacker Terrell Suggs that drew a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer after a touchdown throw to tight end Jerame Tuman.
Cowher reiterated today that he does not intend to rest any healthy starters in Buffalo and will do his best to try to win the game.
Seymour's Status Uncertain
According to one NFL source, the knee injury suffered by New England's three-time Pro Bowl defensive end, Richard Seymour, during Sunday's win over the Jets is a sprained medial collateral ligament that could take two to six weeks to heal. That would put Seymour's status in question for the Patriots' initial playoff game. They have a first-round bye but will host an AFC semifinal, probably against the Colts, three weeks after Seymour got hurt. The best current guess, the source said, is that Seymour will play that weekend but will be at less than full capacity. The injury creates more questions for a Patriots defense still waiting to get cornerback Ty Law back from a broken bone in his foot. . . . The Patriots took a seven-hour bus trip home after the Jets game because icy conditions kept their plane from taking off. . . .
The Jets probably will be without defensive end John Abraham for a fourth game in a row because of his knee injury. . . .
Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair is scheduled to undergo surgery today on the sternum injury that ended his season early. McNair's doctors plan to use a bone graft to strengthen the area. . . .
The Colts are sending the ball used by quarterback Peyton Manning to throw his 48th touchdown pass of the season Sunday, tying Dan Marino's NFL record, to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They are holding onto the ball from his 49th touchdown pass, the record-breaker, possibly to be displayed in a Colts' Hall of Fame in a proposed new stadium. . . .
Falcons Coach Jim Mora Jr. indicated Monday he plans to play quarterback Michael Vick against the Seahawks. Vick sat out Sunday's loss to the Saints because of a sprained throwing shoulder. . . .
The Seahawks plan to go back to Matt Hasselbeck as their starting quarterback this week if his ailing elbow is sufficiently healed, and it appears likely that it will be. Trent Dilfer led the Seahawks to a victory over Arizona that clinched a playoff berth Sunday, but completed only 10 of 26 passes for 128 yards. The club expects five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones to be in the lineup this week even though he hurt his left ankle last weekend. The Seahawks also expect rookie safety Michael Boulware to play with a sprained foot and fullback Mack Strong to be available despite a bruised quadriceps.
Woodson Likely to Retire
Dallas safety Darren Woodson probably will announce his retirement in the coming days. He missed the entire season after undergoing back surgery, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said during a radio appearance Monday that Woodson's 13-year NFL career is over. Coach Bill Parcells said an announcement regarding Woodson's status could be made late in the week.
Woodson, 35, has played his entire career with the Cowboys and has been selected to five Pro Bowls. He is the last player still on the club's roster from its three Super Bowl-winning teams in the 1990s, and is the Cowboys' all-time leading tackler. . . .
For a second week in a row, Parcells is delaying an announcement about his starting quarterback until Wednesday. Last week, he stuck with veteran Vinny Testaverde but left open the possibility of using second-year pro Tony Romo against the Redskins. Testaverde played the entire game last Sunday, though, and beat the Redskins with a late touchdown pass. This week, the Cowboys officially are eliminated from playoff contention, and Romo perhaps could play against the New York Giants at Giants Stadium on Sunday even if he doesn't start. . . .
Second-year quarterback Chris Simms could start Tampa Bay's season finale at Arizona because Brian Griese has what Coach Jon Gruden described Monday as a strained hip. . . .
The Bengals hope that quarterback Carson Palmer returns to their lineup for the season finale against the Eagles after missing two games because of a knee injury. According to Palmer, he has a stretched, but not torn, MCL. . . . Cincinnati rookie tailback Chris Perry is scheduled to undergo hernia surgery. Perry hasn't played since mid-October. He played in only two games this season and had two carries for one yard. . . .
The Eagles officially are retiring No. 92 in tribute to Reggie White, who died Sunday. The team, which had unofficially retired the number, plans to honor White in a ceremony Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, and will petition the league to wear helmet decals in memory White's memory.