The beauty of the NFL is that every week we get an awesome action movie (The Longest Day crossed with Mission Impossible) crossed with a ridiculous reality-programme/soap-opera. Commenting on typical week in the NFL takes in everything from explaining whether the Texans are playing a 5-2, 3-4, or 4-4 alignment to whether Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow can find ultimate happiness together, to which former player may or may not have hit the national soccer team's goalie and then married her the next day. It's like watching so-called serious news reporters trying to reassess the Benghazi attacks while trying to provide the proper sombre tone to stories about General Petraeus's love life, sorry, I mean lessons in leadership.
Like NFL teams with a distinct imbalance between their offense and defense, few can manage to be both Cris Collinsworth and Davina McCall, so increasingly the 'serious' analysis tends to be offered in the frantic hyperbole of the soaps. How else to explain Skip Bayliss? In that light, the funniest bit of NFL video, Trindon Holliday excluded, was Rick Reilly asking Stuart Scott to make sure he gave him credit for being 'first to tweet' that Ben Roethlisberger's injury was serious, because Ben had given him a one-shoulder'd shrug when leaving the stadium. In that context, we need to concentrate on more serious analysis of the NFL, and I want to make it clear that last Sunday I was the absolute world-wide first to tweet 'Harbaughed' as a verb!
THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL:
Miami (4-6) at Buffalo (3-6): The Bills gave a good effort against the Patriots, and minus some silly penalties and a few turnovers (Fred Jackson fumbled twice, which I am sure is down to his relative fragility trying to play through earlier serious injuries) they might've pulled off a huge upset. The Dolphins, at home against Tennessee and their erratic passing game, played giveaway themselves and were destroyed, with the Titans apparently reading tells in the Dolphins' formations. This is a rebound game for both teams, only Buffalo is at home on a short week, and might be blessed with cold windy un-South Beach weather on a November night. On the other hand, Cameron Wake is that much closer to Canada. Pick (made Thursday): Bills
Friday Morning Autopsy: The correct answer to 'who will win this game' might well have been 'nobody'. A punt return and a kickoff return and a lot of bumbling isn't entertainment, unless you're a Bills' fan. Right, Kev?
Arizona (4-5) at Atlanta (8-1): Bird Derby! The Crads, rested and ready, will have noted that it seems to be getting easier and easier to stop Michael Turner. We noted it when the Cowboys were stopping Turner, until the Falcons finally opened a hole off-tackle and Turner chugged for the big run that was the game's key play. The problem is that Jacquizz is not really effective from a set; he needs the ball in space, and Jason Snelling has just about always run the way Turner runs now. The big matchups which the Falcon offense depends on winning will be tougher against the Card defense, but when it comes to Arizona's offense. Pick: Falcons
Tampa Bay (5-4) at Carolina (2-7): Amazing what Doug Martin's running has done for this team, and for all the knocking Greg Schiano took for his stunts like the spike blitz, he's turned the Bucs' D into something like it used to be. Josh Freeman looked like a guy on the verge of breaking into the NFL's top 10 QBs a couple of years ago, and he's looking like it again. That list, by the way, has been exceedingly volatile in the past few years, which is why that whole 'elite' thing is such a conundrum. Or have you not been following Cam Newton this year? Pick: Bucs
Cleveland (2-7) at Dallas (4-5): Here's the cure for all Jerry's problems. Their big win in Philly last week was down to a punt return, interception return, and fumble recovery in the end zone. For a moment there, I thought they were the Bills. Pick: Cowboys
Green Bay (6-3) at Detroit (4-5): The Packers may be the only team to add significantly to their injury report during their bye week, especially when Clay Matthews pulled a hamstring taping a TV commercial, meaning 'You Are' Dezman Morris gets the start. This seems to be karma payback week in the NFL, as Bryan Bulaga's injury means Evan Dietrich-Smith will start at guard, with TJ Lang bumping out to tackle, which means the Suh stomp from last Thanksgiving will be the feature of all the pre-games. In the ‘Kronicle of Koaching Karma’, Jim Schwartz probably ranks just below the Harbaughs in terms of accumulating bad vibes (which is what made his infamous Harbaugh Handbag Hoho last year so good) but just as the Lions seem to specialise in late-game comebacks, they also may be gearing up for a late-season playoff run in a tough division. Which means this is a must-win game, and at home against a battered Packers' lineup, this may be the best chance they get. Pick: Lions
Jacksonville(1-8) at Houston (8-1): Palindromic records! When one team is 8-1 it tells you all you need to know. Blaine Gabbert will be about as effective as Jay Cutler was in the second half against the Texans last week. Pick: Texans
Cincinnati (4-5) at Kansas City (1-8): Coming off a big win over the Giants, the Bengals ought to be on a roll, unless you think somehow that the Chiefs are due. For' something. The idea of their winning would mean they get to celebrate in the end zone: it was bad enough they got a flag for excessive celebration on a TD that was called back, they actually should have got a second one, on Dwayne Bowe, for a second TD that was called back. Obviously, no one in Missouri read the obits of Darrell Royal, who said, 'when you get to the end zone act like you've been there before.' Of course, few of the Chiefs have. Pick: Bengals
Indianapolis (6-3) at New England (6-3): Adam Vinatieri/Darius Butler/Sergio Brown Bowl! Butler, the second-round pick washout for the Pats, was AFC Defensive Player of the Week last week as he stepped in for the injured Vontae Davis, while Brown has been a special teams standout for the Colts. Hands up all you who thought the Colts and Pats would have the same record when they met in November. Put it down, Neil! Aqib Talib joins the Pats this week, and probably moves right into the line-up. They need a quality corner because they like to direct plays in his direction, while overloading the other side. Ty Law and Asante Samuel weren't shut down guys, but they understood the bait & snitch tactic. With Talib and Alfonzo Dennard at the corners, the Pats added a parole officer to their secondary coaches. This will be a big test for the Colts' D, although everybody's looking at it as another big test for Andrew Luck. Bruce Arians has always been able to move the ball against the Pats, and he uses Luck in much the same way he did Big Ben (with similar O line and running back problems). Reggie Wayne and Talib should be the matchup to watch. Pick: Pats
Newark Airport Jets (3-6) at St Louis (3-5-1): Wayne Hunter/Kellen Clemens Bowl! Those escapees from Castle Rex must be happy, because the first thing the Jest did on landing in St Louis was send tweets about how bad Sam Bradford is, and signed them Steven Jackson. The Rams settled for a tie against the Niners last week, shooting themselves in Greg Zuerlein's foot. I may be the only guy willing to argue against having overtime at all. The single best argument for tie games is that they are the best tie-breaker for the annual playoff. The next one is you get to see which coaches play to win and which play not to lose. The next one is you might avoid some tired injuries. And you don't get the mess we got last week, as teams jockeyed for field goal range and Roger Saffold decided to line up as an H-back, which nullified an 80 yard catch by the BBC's own Danny Amendola. Pick: Rams
Philadelphia (3-6) at Washington (3-6): The Skins have had extra time to prepare for the Eagles, with or without Michael Vick, so perhaps the new tactic of an empty backfield and Nick Foles Five might work for Andy Reid. Given the state of Philly's O line, the Skins may not miss Orapko and Carriker as much as they have; you pretty much need to avoid giving up the big play and then wait for the Eagles to beat themselves. On the other hand, it took about three games for teams to figure out the new wrinkles in the Washington offense, and the Shanaclan haven't really been able to adjust, and as they proved with Victor Cruz, their secondary is more porous than Jily Kelly's email account. With all the media attention on Andy Reid and his problems, Shanahan & Sons have been getting a pass; at least his O line is still relatively intact and that might be enough to make his offense look good, and more importantly, the struggling Eagles' O line ought to make his depleted D look OK. Well, except in the secondary where the Eagles can occasionally do some damage. Still, pick: Skins.
New Orleans (4-5) at Oakland (3-6): The Saints snowball is gathering momentum as it rolls down the bayou and into the Gulf of Mexico and momentum is Oakland's middle name. With Marcel Reese pounding the ball 25 times into the Saints' D line, and the Raiders' secondary clamping down on Drew Brees' few targets, this ought to be a cakewalk for the Silver and Black, who are still smarting from John Harbaugh's condescension, which, if you look at the root of the word, also implies going downhill. If I were whoever the Saints' coach is this week, I'd open the game with a quick kick and then fake the first figgie I line up to take, and see if the Raiders go into a coma. Pick: Saints
San Diego (4-5) at Denver (6-3): You may remember when these teams met in Baja California the Chargers went up 24-0 and then the Broncos came back to win. If you don't remember, just watch any of the pregame shows. Many powerful elements of juju are at work right now: the Chargers' annual late playoff run needs to begin soon, but Denver and Peyton Manning are on a roll at altitude and if you watched that nfl.com video of Manning mic’d up on the sidelines and in the huddle, you'll see part of the difference in him and Philip Rivers. Quarterbacking isn't all about passing, but when you throw a pass like the one Rivers laid up for Leonard Johnson, it is. Pick: Broncos
SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL LIVE ON CHANNEL FOUR:
Baltimore (7-2) at Pittsburgh (6-3): The Steelers are at home, but coming off a short week due to playing Monday Night, and without Big Ben, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu, and who knows which of their running backs. What they'd give for a Chris Ivory! Meanwhile the Ravens are without Ray Lewis, Jimmy Smith, and their offense, which refuses to travel. Karma and the Harbaugh Bros. appear to be strangers, but it never seems to matter: the universe would generally expect some sort of rebalancing after the Ravens ran a fake field goal while leading the Raiders 41-17. Maybe the Raiders are so deeply overdrawn in the karma bank it doesn't matter. This could come down to Joe Flacco targeting the Steeler safeties, eventually completing one TD to the Torrey you can support, and missing the extra point on a bad snap, leaving us with a 6-6 tie. I can remember Byron Leftwich coming in a winning a game in relief of Ben, but we were on Channel 5 then, and Leftwich has been and gone and threw all of seven passes in the past two years. Seven into two years is about 100 days per pass, which is only a slight exaggeration of how slow his delivery is. I'm sure someone on the Ravens' D has noticed. If I were the Steelers I'd open the game with an onsides kick, and fake my first punt and field goal. It's very odd how our game has been the toughest one to pick every week. Pick: Ravens
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL LIVE ON BBC RED BUTTON AND BBC SORT WEBSITE:
Chicago (7-2) at San Francisco (6-2-1): Talk about two weeks to define your season. Watching Jay Cutler last week I am more convinced than ever that the best comparison to him is a kinder, gentler Jeff George. Like George he has a quick release, short-armed cannon. But again, compare to Peyton. Jay's nowhere near as detached as George, nor as argumentative, but neither is he as demonstrably a leader, like Peyton. There are different strokes for different folks, and some great QBs have led by example, not verbally, but you can see the difference. The Bears will miss Cutler, though I suspect Jason Campbell's performance will probably be the inverse of Caleb Hanie, with a week to prepare he'll be better, though if there's ever been a poster-boy for a career driven down a winding mountain road by a series of coordinators who've lost their driving licences, it's his. Campbell probably goes against Colin Kaepernick, not Alex Smith. Kaepernick actually can pass, though we haven't seen much of it, but the fun part is the way he runs like a jitterbugging ostrich, or a giant stick insect whom you'd expect NFL linemen would snap the way female praying mantises do the males they pick up in singles leaves. This one ought to be run, and, by the way, Kansas State QB Collin Klein is kind of a cross between Kaepernick and Tim Tebow. Let's pray he isn't drafted by the Jest, or any team coached by Hue Jackson. Pick: Niners
Minnesota (6-4): Saw a stat that said Adrian Peterson is averaging 6.3 yards per carry against 8 men (or more) in the box. Shudder. Wait until his knee's 100 per cent. This is a key, but I also think Kyle Rudolph is more crucial to Christian Ponder's passing stats than Samantha Steele.
Seattle (6-4): Russell Wilson doesn't seem to be getting the love in the rookie QB debate, but you have to like the way the Seahawks have handled him, a lot like the Steelers did Big Ben in his rookie year. And Wilson delivers the occasional big play—his downfield passing is exceptional, while the everyday stuff is more of a problem. The Seahawks could well squeeze into that second wild card spot in the NFC—look at their schedule.
Tennessee (4-6): Who were those guys who showed up in Miami last week?
BYE BYE, BACK SOON WEEK:
New Jersey Giants (6-4): Every season, Tom Coughlin appears to lose the team sometime in November, only to rediscover them after he takes the grandkids to visit Santa and hears them ask for an Elite Manning jersey. I don't doubt the Giants will pick up, if not when Green Bay comes to town next week, then with a relaxing trip down the I-95 corridor to Landover. I hope the past few weeks have put the elite questions on pause for a while—I think it goes back to that 77 yard TD pass to Victor Cruz, which nobody seemed to notice was underthrown, and the fact that the Redskins' secondary could let a receiver get behind them in that situation had nothing to do with whether Eli was the greatest QB ever or not. What is for sure is the four guys at the top of the QB pile: Rodgers, Brees, Brady, and Peyton, are back there again, and how you sort the others out changes. As Charles Olson wrote, 'what does not change is the will to change', and that may be how we define elite.
LAST WEEK: 8-5-1 SEASON: 91-55-1