It was a great Sunday of football, and of the four games I picked wrong, two were decided in OT and the other two on the last play of regulation (the Indy win coming on a 4th and 10 conversion into a TD). All the excitement sparks talk about parity, which is fascinating, but consider this fact: until we get to Monday (and when I say 'we' I mean 'we' because Chappers and I will be in the studio this week!) we won't have a single game between two teams with winning records. I'm not sure that's a first, but it speaks to a certain structural imbalance. Notable this season, apart from the failure of a number of bad teams to improve, and the regression of teams like the Saints, Eagles, Lions, and Cowboys, is the transformation of good teams into very good ones. I'm thinking ofDenver,Houston, andAtlantahere.
I discussDenverbelow, and inHoustonwhat we've seen is a consolidation of the work of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. His effectiveness might best be marked by the team's willingness to let Mario Williams shuffle off to Buffalo rather than pay him big bucks, and it's certainly notable that Phillips has continued to keep his D effective even with the loss of Brian Cushing, Brooks Reed and Johnathan Joseph. But injuries, and depth, are key parts of the NFL, particularly in December.
The real importance of coordinators is best seen in Atlanta, who last year thought Julio Jones would put them over the top single-headedly, and this year brought Dirk Koetter in from Jacksonville to replace Mike Mularkey, who went to the Jags as head coach and look how that's worked out. Koetter has been able to get the ball downfield more, and has kept the O ticking even though Michael Turner is not the threat he once was: their run game often resembles that of the late-Bettis era Steelers, or the current Packers, or the Antoine Smith Pats, doing just enough to keep the defense honest and picking up the occasional play as they wear down. Plus Koetter's been able to work Jacquizz Rodgers into the offense in ways Mularkey couldn't. But the real revelation has been Mike Nolan, who's turned a defense that always seemed to break down while trying to keep teams under control, into one that attacks and puzzles them. Like Phillips, Nolan's record as a head coach isn't stellar, but his short-week game plan against the always-dangerous Saints was brilliant.
THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL:
Denver (9-3) at Oakland (3-9): Palindromic Bowl! There is of course a lot of talk right now about Peyton Manning as the league's MVP, and he's certainly its comeback player of the year. But consider last season's Broncos from this perspective: they were a good football team, with a better than good defense, that got into the playoffs despite, not because of, Tim Tebow's quarterbacking. The mainstream media tends to harp on about fourth-quarter comebacks, and Peyton's been so slouch in that department, but he's also a QB who gives his team a good shot at going into the fourth quarter with a decent lead. Which is what I think they will do in Oakland. But if the ability to 'turn around' a team is the MVP criterion, why not any of the three rookies who've made such a difference in Indy, Landover, or Seattle? Pick (made Wednesday): Broncos
Friday Morning Breakdown: No great surprises last night. Best moment was Peyton audibling 'prison, prison' and the Broncos executing a jailbreak screen. Chris Burke at SI tweeted that Carson Palmer ought to audible 'aristocrats, aristocrats', spike the ball and walk off the field.
St Louis (5-6-1) at Buffalo (5-7): Both teams are coming off impressive wins; the Bills pounded the ball against the Jags (Fred Jax 25/109, CJ 14/77) and with Fitz throwing only 17 passes everything was copacetic. The Rams can be run on too, but they stopped Frank Gore pretty well (23/58) in their OT win over the Niners, forcing Colin Kaepernick to run, and make some mistakes in the passing game (though in fairness his grounding-penalty safety was a wrong call by the replacement replacement refs). It's a much different Ram team than the one we saw in London, and Buffalo's the next best thing. Is it possible that in the AFC 8-8 could get you into the playoffs as a wildcard? Pick: Bills
Dallas (6-6) at Cincinnati (7-5): Mike Zimmer Bowl! The third-seeds in the two tightest divisions meet in a game that ought to be a definer for both seasons. Zimmer has had a great season with the Bengals' D, and this will be reflected in the pressure they bring against a Dallas O line that's got real problems. When Dallas' playmakers do what they're supposed to, they're dangerous, especially at breakdown time in a close game, but their D is severely tested by the loss of both Lee and Carter, and Rob Ryan seems to be morphing into another Rex or late-career Buddy, in terms of indiscipline cancelling out. DeMarco Murray made a huge difference for Dallas last week, but that was against the Eagles. Pick: Bengals
Kansas City (2-10) at Cleveland (4-8): Romeo Crennel/Brian Daboll/Brady Quinn/Peyton Hillis/Travis Daniels Bowl (and if you didn't know that, Joe Thomas probably reminded you during the week). Despite the opportunity to get some revenge, you get the sense that things will revert to normal for the Chiefs. This week they travel to face a Cleveland team that's been finding its legs, and on their home turf they ought to be able to win. Pick: Browns
FACING TRAGEDY:Kansas City's players' decision to play last Sunday was validated, in a sense, by their performance. Sometimes we do need to carry on with our routines in order to help us figure out how to cope with tragedies. Later that day, NBC's Bob Costas came under severe fire for simply suggesting America's gun culture played a part in the tragedy, but he was right: if Jovan Belcher didn't have a gun, maybe he'd be in custody right now, maybe he and Kasandra Perkins would be in therapy, but definitely they'd both be alive and their daughter Zoe would have her parents. There are loads of other issues involved, none of which we could be sure of at the time, and Costas was simply stating the obvious (and in fact, quoting Fox's Jason Whitlock). As commentators, indeed as fans, we think we 'know' athletes, because we study them on the field, or own them in fantasy, or follow their careers, but the reality is we don't know them, and though we often pretend football is life, it is not. Celebrity means publicity, and the fact the killer was a player means those of us who analyse football for living have to comment on situations no one should have to endure. If the publicity around this awful event somehow results in making murders like this less likely, that's the best we can hope for.
Philadelphia (3-9) at Tampa Bay (6-6): In trying to figure out what's gone wrong with the Eagles, it's easy to say they've been unable to replace Jim Johnson's skill as defensive coordinator. But the Eagles' great run with Johnson and Reid was 2000-04 (59-21, 7-5 playoffs, lost '04 Super Bowl). In the next four years, they won 10 and their division only once, and made the playoffs as a wild card in Johnson's last year. After Johnson, with Sean McDermott as coordinator, they went 11-5 and 10-6, winning the division the latter year. I suspect the fault wasn't McDermott (or indeed Castillo the last two years) as much as their failure to replace Brian Dawkins and their corners in the draft. Injuries have played their part, especially to Jason Peters, but depth is part of the process of team building. Meanwhile, add the Bucs' Mike Sullivan, formerly QB coach with the Giants to that list of coordinators who have made a difference. The Bucs are staging a reunion of the 2002 team that beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship game, which may be bad juju (hubris?) or may distract Ronde Barber, who's still playing. Even so, pick: Bucs
Baltimore (9-3) at Washington (6-6): Maryland Derby! To me, the Skins now hold the inside track in the NFC East, with a somewhat easier run in (the Giants have Atlanta and Baltimore on the road the next two weeks) and a tie-break advantage they would nail in their head-to-head against Dallas in week 17. But this is a huge game for the Ravens too, who need Joe Flacco to play in Landover as if he were in Baltimore: putting aside his 16/34 against the Steelers. Cam Cameron strikes me as being a bit like Norv Turner, in that he's stuck to offensive patterns from a short era ago, plus he abandoned the no-huddle business and he appears to avoid challenging defenses' strengths, as last week which resulted in wunning Way Wice a widiculous 12 times. The problem for the Skins is they don't rush all that well, nor do they cover all that well, but Jim Haslett's managed to put a band-aid over it, which sounds a lot like a whole series of coordinators who got fired in Denver under Shanahan. Pick: Skins
Atlanta (11-1) at Carolina (3-9): Having praised the Falcons, it's worth noting now that they have specialised in grabbing close wins over not so good teams—and they got Denver and Washington before they found their grooves. But the Thursday win over the Saints, who are not that good either, made a statement. Still, everyone's looking at this as being the trap game of the week. Except me. Pick: Falcons
Newark Airport Jest (5-7) at Jacksonville (2-10): Three ways to improve this game. 1. Let Chad Henne play for both teams. 2. Trade Tim Tebow to the Jags at halftime, and let him switch uniforms at midfield (you'd need a special waiver from the Goodellfather, and maybe from Peter King, to do that, but why not?) 3. Make the D lines count to three Mississippi before beginning their rush. Pick: Jags
Tennessee (4-8) at Indianapolis (8-4): Palindromic Bowl II! Add Bruce Arians to that list of coordinators who've made a difference (can you consider Todd Haley as his opposite?) though his performance as interim head coach has probably made him a leading contender for one of the vacancies which ought to arise soon. John Pagano could be back on the sidelines by week 17, which would be interesting, but how his long-term energy will be remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the way Andrew Luck and the Colts took advantage of the Lions' D in the fourth quarter ought to send a message to the Titans, who probably aren't going to lay 30 on Indy unless CJ2.0YPA has one of his big games. Waiting for him to bail out the Titans is like waiting for your special teams to win games for you. Pick: Colts
Chicago (8-4) at Minnesota (6-6): The Vikes have a chance to turn the NFC North into the third highly competitive division, against a Bears team with only one win against a team with a winning record. Oh, but they don't have a winning record. Nor do they have any wide receivers, which makes some of Chicago's secondary problems irrelevant. Brian Urlacher's loss moves Nick Roach to mike, which isn't that great a loss, but the knock-on effect may see the Bears prefer to spend more time in nickel, which is useless against Adrian Peterson (who might give Peyton a comeback player battle). With their depth up front I'd consider running a 5-2 front. None of that helps solve the black hole which is the Bears' O line. When you watch the Patriots lose Light and Waters (retirement), Mankins and Vollmer (injury), and rotate guys like Thomas, McDonald, Cannon, Connelly, and Wendell, only one of whom they drafted, through starting spots you wonder what Mike Tice's problem is. Matt Forte is potentially a version of Marshall Faulk, and his Rams' O line started two guys out of NFL Europe. It can be done. Pick: Bears
San Diego (4-8) at Pittsburgh (7-5): The Chargers have never won in Pittsburgh, 0-14. Ben is supposed to be back this week, after Charlie Batch's miracle in Baltimore. Reports this week that both Norv Turner and AJ Smith will be fired after the season are no surprise, and the idea of Norv asking the players to 'win one for AJ' doesn't really suggest much in the way of traction for San Diego. Pick: Steelers
Miami (5-7) at San Francisco (8-3-1): How similar are the Dolphins and Rams? The core of a good D, with the advantage to Miami. An offense hamstrung by its lack of downfield receivers, though Chris Givens gives an edge to the Rams, especially if Danny Amendola is healthy. Steve Jackson probably swings the balance to the Rams, though speaking of swings, if I were the Dolphins I might be looking to get the ‘Bush You Can Support’ downfield a bit, a la Marshall Faulk with the old Rams, and stretch the Niners that way. Defensively, I think SF has too much for Miami to handle. Pick: Niners
Arizona (4-8) at Seattle (7-5): I guess that win in Chicago means the Seahawks are for real, and their run in to the week 17 matchup with the Niners suggests they could still be in the hunt for the division. The problem for them right now is the potential loss of both their starting corners to PED suspensions—and there's an argument to be made that Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman ought to take their medicine (see what I'm doing there?) now, so they will be back for the playoffs, especially since you don't really seem to need a secondary against the Crads. Offensively the Seahawks can run, can get downfield, and Russell Wilson is every bit as heady as Luck or Griffin. Plus Leon Washington makes special teams plays. Pick: Seahawks
New Orleans (5-7) at New Jersey Giants (7-5): Palindromic Bowl III! Big one for the Giants, who face a tougher last four weeks than the Skins. The NFC East is likely to come down to the final weekend, when the Giants host Philly and Dallas is at Washington. The Saints remain dangerous, and if JPP is out for the Giants their rush is less daunting, which ought to open up possibilities for the offense. I start to wonder if the Saints' problems are down to the preseason chaos and Brees' holdout, or if the loss of Carl Nicks really messed up their O line? Of course it may just be that Sean Payton's impact is crucial to their offense. This kind of a tortoise and hare matchup, and the tortoise probably could've won last week if he'd only avoided holding penalties on kick returns. Pick: Giants
SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL LIVE ON CHANNEL FOUR:
Detroit (4-8) at Green Bay (8-4): Palindromic Bowl IV! But this is hardly a gimme for the Packers; at some point, you think, the Lions have to put together a full four quarters of good football, where they play with discipline and allow their playmakers (Stafford/Megatron/Suh/Fairley) to make plays without negating them. This is a vulnerable Packer team, whose offensive line is a mess and who have lost three of their four best defenders, and just as they get Greg Jennings back Jordy Nelson gets hurt. A Lions win might mean watching Jim Schwartz prance around Lambeau for an hour or so, so pick: Pack
MONDAY NIGHT MIKE: FOOTBALL LIVE ON BBC RED BUTTON:
Houston (11-1) at New England (9-3): This is the week's only game that matches up two teams with winning records, it's a good one, and Chappers and I will be bringing it to you just to warm up for the BBC Super Bowl show! Right now the AFC playoffs are looking like a dangerous fight, and both teams are shorthanded, the Texans on defense, as mentioned above, and the Pats losing key players from all three units, especially Chandler Jones (D), Gronk (O) and Julian Edelman (ST). You pretty much know what the Texans are going to do offensively, the question is whether you show the best way to stop it now, or hang on. While the Pats will game-plan for defenses, but Wade is less likely to get tricky until he gets a few of his guys back. Fascinating to anticipate, but what I really forecast is two teams trying to make statement wins, and remember, the Texans play the Colts twice in the last three weeks. Pick: Pats
LAST WEEK: 10-6 SEASON: 124-62-1