Before we get to this week’s round-up of the odds, ends and trends around NFL in Week 12, we have the update you’ve all been waiting for...
SAFETYWATCH ‘08: Yet another safety this week, as Dallas blocked an Andy Lee punt through the end zone against the Niners. That’s four weeks in a row with a safety. Our long national curiosity continues.
More updates as the situation progresses. We now return you to your regularly scheduled post:
I’ve got to be honest, I’m feeling pretty good about myself after Week 12. Last week, I wrote about how badly Donovan McNabb looked last week, and rumors he’s be benched for Kevin Kolb, and this weekend it happened. Last week, I predicted the Jets would upset the Titans, and on Sunday they did. I even had another good week with my picks. That's a lot to be thankful for right there. Of course, I did pick the Niners to win, and we all know how that turned out. But things could always be worse -- I could be a Lions fan.
THE LATER IT GETS, THE BETTER YOU LOOK: A few weeks ago, Boston fans were whining (I know, I was shocked too) that their season was over because Tom Brady was out and Matt Cassel sucked. Suddenly, they’re not only talking playoffs, but wondering if they’re not poised to make a run behind one of the hottest QB’s in the league -- some guy named Matt Cassel.
If Cassel was a stock, he’d be going in the opposite direction of all the other stocks -- up. Sunday, Cassel’s numbers reminded one of Brady’s: 30/43, 415 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT. While Randy Moss had a lot to do with those stats, Cassel has always thrown well on the run, is looking better in the pocket, and even hit on some deep passes (two 20+ yard TD), which has been his weakness. It was the second straight tough division game in which he’s thrown for 400+ yards. It’s also he first time any QB has had back-to-back 400 yard games in the NFL since 2000. Sobering reminder: That QB was Billy Volek.
The question of Cassel’s availability this off-season has been raised here. I’ve been taking the position that the dollar figures being thrown around are too high, and the smart move would be to pass, but if Cassel keeps lighting up teams (especially teams which shut him down only a couple of months ago), I may have to reconsider.
To keep Cassel from free agency, New England can always franchise him, but CBS's Charley Casserley reported today that would cost them $14+ million, which they can't afford -- even if Brady’s injury lingers. And they cannot, as some have asserted, tag him with the franchise label just so they can trade him to the highest bidder -- at least, not exactly. According to NBC’s Peter King NFL rules forbid that. But it’s not that you can’t trade a franchise player, it’s that you can’t franchise them with the intent of trading them. Intent is an awfully hard thing to prove, but Bill Belichick doesn’t seem like the type of guy to try to pull a fast one and skirt league rules.
However it breaks down, it appears two things will probably change for Matt Cassel in 2009: He will play for a new team, and his salary will grow exponentially.
MEET THE NEW BOSS, SAME AS THE OLD BOSS: In 2001, the Patriots were a rag-tag squad of scrappy underdogs when they stunned the Rams, a team looking to establish a dynasty, in the Super Bowl. It seemed like a major upset at the time, but history now remembers more as a changing of the guard -- the Patriots taking their right place on the throne as next dominant team.
Seven years later, the Pats were the team looking to further cement its dynasty, and the Giants were the rag-tag squad of scrappers who capped a crazy playoff run by shocking them. But will history remember it that way? Considering how the Giants are playing this season, I’d have to guess the answer is no.
New York looks every bit as dominant now as they did throughout last January -- maybe more so. And just like during their playoff run, they don’t seem to mind losing a key contributor. In the playoffs, rookie TE Kevin Boss stepped in for an injured Jeremy Shockey, and the offense didn’t miss a beat. On Sunday, they were without starting RB Brandon Jacobs (inactive) and WR Plaxico Burress (injured early on), and still put up 37 points on the road against a playoff team. Why? Because they always get understudies to step up. Whether it’s RB’s Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw, or WR’s Domenik Hixon, Amani Toomer and company, somebody always seems to make the play they need.
Eli Manning has become a rock they can count on, as has the offensive line, and the pass rush (again, despite the loss of stars -- Strahan and Umenyiora). What’s more, if they are healthy come playoff time, these backups will have the experience and confidence from already playing important minutes. That, and the invaluable experience gained during last year’s run, I believe makes the Giants the odds-on favorite to repeat.
BILL WALSH MEMORIAL GENIUS AWARD: Mike Smith is no Mike Nolan. Many Niner fans will remember a game the Niners lost to the Rams in 2006, when Nolan decided not to go for a 4th and 1 at the Rams goal line late in the game up by three. The reasoning behind the widespread criticism he received was that by kicking a FG he kept the Rams within one score and allowed them to win the game with a TD. A first down would’ve just about ended the game, and even a failed 4th down conversion would’ve left the rams under their own goalposts.
Falcons rookie head coach Mike Smith faced almost the exact same decision on Sunday and took the other route. With seven minutes to go, Atlanta was up three and faced a 4th and goal at the Carolina 1 yard line. Smith called for the team to go for it, and Michael Turner barreled for a TD. The Falcons never looked back, and the momentum led to them scoring two late, tack-on scores to add some emphasis to their big division win.
MIKE NOLAN STRATEGERY AWARD: I was all set to give this to Marvin Lewis for his horrendously timid coaching move on Thursday night -- down 13 to the Steelers early in the 4th quarter, he chose to kick a FG instead of going for 4th and goal (keep in mind his team was 1-8-1 and had only 7 points at the time). But then in Sunday night game, Norv Turner came along.
Down three to Indy with 1:42 to go and facing a 4th and 1 at the Colts 29, Norv did the right thing a chose to kick a tying FG. Only he screwed up that good decision by calling timeout (or, it may have been another coach/player, as some of the folks on NBC surmised -- still he’s responsible). Had the Bolts let the clock roll, they could’ve kicked with 1:02 remaining. Instead, they kicked with 1:35, leaving Peyton Manning just enough time to march down the field and set up Adam Vinateri for the game-winning kick. A win would’ve left San Diego at 5-6 just an game behind the division-leading Broncos. Instead, the loss likely knocks them from playoff contention.
X-FACTORS: At the risk of repeating myself, but for the second week in a row, Leon Washington scored two TD’s in a big win over a team headed for the playoffs in the AFC. This time, he scored them both on the ground, where he compiled 82 yards on only 8 carries, including a huge 62 yarder to seal the upset at Tennessee. You never know where Lil’ Leon will hurt you -- on the ground, through the air, or in the kicking game -- but I could easily seeing him make a play to swing a game in the playoffs. You heard read it here first.
Michael Turner grabbed all the headlines from the Atlanta/Carolina game with 4 TD’s, but Falcons rookie WR/KR/PR Harry Douglas also had himself a day. In the opening quarter, he took the ball in the backfield on a reverse and ran it in for Atlanta’s first TD. Then he went back to wideout, where he’d had just eight catches for 160 yards so far this season, and torched the Panther secondary for four catches for a team-high 92 yards -- including a 69-yarder which set up another score. Finally, in the 4th quarter, Douglas iced the game with a 61-yard punt return TD, giving him 186 all-purpose yards for the day.
X’S & OH’S: One of the best surprises when it comes to TV coverage this season has been the work of rookie announcer Brian Billick on Fox. I think most people knew he’d be a capable color analyst (I mean, the guy has always liked to talk), but I sort of expected him to come off like Bill Walsh did in the booth -- a little stiff, and maybe too cerebral. Instead, it’s opposite: In addition to doing a solid job breaking down plays and critiquing coaching strategy, he’s casual, loose, and funny.
After a promo for ‘24’ on Sunday, he said he’s never missed a show, and promised that he’d divorce his wife if she forgot to TiVo the game. Then, when the game was getting out of hand, he tried to start an impromptu debate with his partner, Thom Brennaman: “Who do you think would win in a fight: Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer?” When Brennaman suggested he include James Bond in the discussion, Billick didn’t hesitate: “Oh no, he’s not even close.”
FACES OF DEATH: You’ve probably heard of Sports Asthma -- it’s where sports make people who don’t normally have asthma start to suffers from symptoms when they participate in athletics. Well, I think John Gruden might have Sports Tourette's. When the Lions had his Bucs down 17-0 early in the game on Sunday I’m pretty sure I saw him speaking in tongues. I think that’s why he only sleeps three hours a night -- it’s because of the powerful psychotropic drugs he must take to keep from bludgeoning a linesman to death with his clipboard.
5 BURNING QUESTIONS:
1. With Mike Smith, Tony Sparano, and John Harbaugh all leading huge turnarounds, can anyone else remember another year with so many great rookie coaches? (I can think of one contender -- 1992: Bill Cowher, Dennis Green, Mike Holmgren)
2. How many players on the Eagles do you think outweigh Andy Reid right now?
3. How much do you think the Bengals regret turning down an offer of two first round picks for Chad Johnson over the off-season?
4. How is it not more publicized that Buffalo has a rookie cornerback named Reggie Corner? (He’s “Corner the corner”, and nobody feels the need to talk about that? Seriously?)
5. Can you come up with a better name for a sideline reporter doing an NFC South showdown in Atlanta than “Buck Lanford”? (I’ll wager you cannot -- that’s why you don’t work for FOX)
I thought with the short week and triple-header of games slated for Thursday, I might as well toss out some early previews. Hopefully you're going to have some really delicious food prepared for your Thanksgiving Day feast because these games don't look very appetizing.
Tennessee (10-1) at Detroit (0-11)
My standard line was always that no matter how good a team was, they’d lose at least one game, and no matter how bad a team was, they win at least one. But after last year’s 16-0 regular season from New England, I can’t rule it out so easily.
Unfortunately for the Lions, they appear headed for history. After blowing an early 17 point lead at home to the Bucs, who responded by tagging them for 35 unanswered points, 0-16 looks well within Detroit’s grasp. They sit at 0-10, are on their third starting QB, and have a tough schedule ahead -- Tennessee, Minnesota, and New Orleans at home, and Indy and Green Bay on the road.
Not only that, but with their GM fired, one of their starting WR’s recently traded, and a different starting QB every week, they seem completely rudderless. It doesn’t appear that the team has quit yet, as they’ve been competitive -- agonizingly so, in a couple of cases -- recently, but their collapses are as predictable as they are ugly.
So, I’m calling it right here and now -- we’re going to see history for the second season in a row. One year after the “Perfect Patriots”, we’re going to have the “Loserrific Lions”.
The pick: TITANS
Seattle (2-9) at Dallas (7-4)
It’s amazing how quickly Seattle became bad. You could see them going downhill for awhile, but they kept up appearances pretty well. They lost Steve Hutchinson to free agency, but they still won the division. Shaun Alexander’s skills bought an island in the Caribbean and retired early, and they still won playoff games. Anyone could’ve guessed the end was near, but I don’t think anybody foresaw them losing 12 or 13 games.
Early in the season it was easy to write off their problems to Matt Hasselbeck’s injury/absence, but lately he looks like one of their biggest problems. In each of the past two games, the Seahawks have gotten the ball back down less than a TD with time to go down the field and win the game, and in both cases Hasselbeck threw a pick on the first play of the drive.
By the way: ESPN’s Chris Mortensen just reported that if Pac Man Jones has any kind of misstep he will be banned from the league permanently. I think Vegas casinos should let people bet on when he gets banned like an office pool for someone’s pregnancy. I’d put the over under on that around Week 15.
The pick: COWBOYS
Arizona (7-4) at Philadelphia (5-5-1)
Prepare to hear a lot of jokes involving Philly this week. Some will focus on the missing offense -- like someone saw it on the back of a milk carton, or CBS is airing a ‘Without a Trace’ where the team has to find it, or something. Others will focus on the timeliness of the holiday -- there will be jokes about how Reid won’t be going over to the McNabb’s house for turkey after the game because he doesn’t trust him with the knife, or how the McNabb’s have to eat Thanksgiving dinner early this year because Donovan’s goose is already cooked. I’m not going to make jokes like that because they’re beneath me, I just wanted to warn you.
The game itself should be interesting, if only to see how many sideline shots of the backup QB (either McNabb or Kolb) there are. Reid has said that Donovan is starting this game, but benching your starter is like separating your shoulder -- once you’ve done it the first time, the threshold for doing it again is much lower. As an aside: I wonder how Matt Leinart feels knowing he has less chance at getting meaningful playing time in this game than Kevin Kolb?
The pick: CARDINALS