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Welcome to 'Any Given Friday', where we love it when the NFL is on four days a week (even if our wife doesn't), where we can't remember so many big games between potential playoff teams in one week before (including head-to-head games for the #1 seed in each conference), and where we'd never call ourselves the worst blogger in America (at least, not as long as howtheyscored is still posting).

The league has several great choices for coach of the year -- it does every year. But what makes this year remarkable is that three of the very best candidates are rookie coaches -- Tony Sparano, John Harbaugh, and Mike Smith. These aren’t just coaches in their first year with new teams, but first time head coaches -- guys with no prior experience. All three have their teams at 9-5 and in the thick of the playoff hunt.

I've mentioned this before here, but the only season I can recall with three rookie coaches this successful was 1992, when Dennis Green took over the Vikings, Bill Cowher became the head man in Pittsburgh (both went 11-5), and Mike Holmgren grabbed the reins in Green Bay (9-7). Two of them went on to win Super Bowls (and lose Super Bowls) with those teams, and the other went to two conference championship games.

The only other virgin head coach this year (non-interim division), Jim Zorn, has Washington at a respectable 7-7 (though they did go 9-7 a year ago). He could've easily been in the discussion of the best rookie coach as well, if he hadn’t a) allowed the ‘Skins to fade badly down the stretch, b) needlessly benched and publicly criticized his best offensive player, and c) called himself “the worst coach in America”. This has only intensified rumors that Zorn might be one-and-done in D.C., a la Schottenheimer in 2001, and Daniel Snyder could be preparing to make Cowher an offer he can’t refuse. So, while Coach Zorn does his daily affirmation, Stuart Smalley-style, let’s narrow the discussion to The Big Three.

They come from different backgrounds -- offense, defense, and special teams. One (Smith) was a coordinator for five years at the pro level before being hired. The other two had never been coordinators at the pro level, Harbaugh never had at any level. The one common thread: They all changed their starting QB in the first year, either through trade or draft. So keep in mind, the GM’s for these teams should be getting a lot of credit as well. The question is, which of them has done the best job thus far. Before you answer, let’s take a closer look at the candidates:

Tony Sparano has completely turned around the 1-15 Dolphins, with a big (fat) helping hand from Bill Parcells. He’s relied on the running game (led by everybody’s favorite, the Wildcat formation) and a good defense (led by sackmaster Joey Porter). The acquisition of Pennington and health of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams gave him a good start, and he’s run with it. Sparano has led the biggest turnaround in terms of wins, but of course a lot of credit needs to go to Parcells. Bonus points for having a name resembling one famous TV character, and a face (and body) resembling another.

John Harbaugh has led his turnaround of 5-11 Baltimore with some help from rookie QB Joe Flacco, improved line play, and the Baltimore staple -- defense. They always had the defensive stars -- Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata -- but injuries and a hopeless offense took the sting out of their bite. Harbaugh has used Flacco’s ability to avoid big mistakes and a reliance on the running game to re-energize the D, and they’re playing as well as they have in years. But a lot of credit for that must go to defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. Bonus points for landing an NFL head coaching gig before Captain Comeback.

Mike Smith has done the seemingly impossible in Atlanta. Not just turning around the 4-12 Falcons, but making everybody forget about Michael Vick. A big assist goes to first-year GM Thomas Dmitrov for top pick Matt Ryan and free-agent acquisition Michael Turner. There was already talent there -- Roddy White, John Abraham, Jerious Norwood -- but those two changes more than anything appear to be responsible for the turnaround. Even so, the job Smith has done can’t be minimized -- given a choice of a franchise to take over this past off-season, I don’t think there were many who would’ve chosen Atlanta over Miami or Baltimore. Big, big bonus points for getting all up in Antonio Bryant’s grill. For that alone, he's got my vote.

We'll take a look at all the weekend's games after the jump...

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Baltimore (9-5) at Dallas (9-5)

Cowboys: Is there anybody in the league who fumbles more than Tony Romo? After two more fumbles last week -- one a fumbled snap, which seems to happen to him all the time -- he might be the NFL’s Mr. Fumble. Kurt Warner once held that title, and he’s still in the league, but he seems to have improved in that regard. Warner credits switching to gloves for his better grip, so maybe Romo should talk to him.

Ravens: One play in last week’s Pittsburgh/Baltimore game got lost amid all the talk about the ending. Leading 9-6, with just a few minutes remaining, Baltimore faced a 3rd and 8 at the Steelers’ 27. Joe Flacco dropped back to pass, and held onto the ball too long. Unaware of the pocket closing around him, Flacco was sacked and fumbled. The ravens recovered, but the play knocked the team out of FG range. The Ravens punted, and though they pinned the Steelers deep, Pittsburgh drove 92 yards to score. But because the ridiculous Jeff Reed penalty I talked about in Monday’s post, the Ravens got the ball back near midfield, and drove near FG range. Had they cashed in their earlier FG opportunity, the Ravens wouldn’t have had to force the ball into the end zone. But by that time, a FG would do them no good, and their corresponding aggressiveness got them picked off in the end zone to win the game.

The pick: COWBOYS

Cincinnati (2-11-1) at Cleveland (4-10)

Ken Dorsey is sort of like the NFL’s version of 'Rudy'. He's not big enough, or fast enough. His arm isn’t strong, or accurate. I can just hear it now: “You’re five-foot-nuthin’, a hundred and nuthin’.” he really has no business still being in the NFL. But he’s smart, and he gutsy, and he gives you all he’s got. The difference between Kenny and Rudy is that every now and again Dorsey has to play for an extended period, and then people see that he sucks. That’s when the fans of his team stop thinking he’s a cute story and start booing. When you think about it, the only reason that Rudy never got booed is that he never got to play enough. If the coaches at Notre Dame threw him out there to play every down against Michigan, he’d would’ve been blown up all day and booed off the field. People don’t make movies about things like that.

The pick: BENGALS

Miami (9-5) at Kansas City (2-12)

The Dolphins have clearly taken the Bill Parcells model of defense and ball-control to heart. Stat O’ The Week: Miami has amazingly only turned the ball over 10 times in 14 games this season. They’re on face to break the all-time record of 14 in a 16-game season, held by the 1990 Giants -- a team coached by... (yep, you guessed it) Bill Parcells. That team won the Super Bowl, and I don’t see that in the Dolphins’ future, but still: Way to hold onto your balls, Miami!

Random question, has anyone ever turned the ball over fewer times than they had losses the previous year? (Take a minute to wrap your head around that one)

The pick: DOLPHINS

San Francisco (5-9) at St. Louis (2-12)

Was there a worse set of downs run last week than the Niners had from a 1st and 10 at the Miami 28 late in the 2nd quarter? It went: Sack, Bruce catch for 1st down called back on illegal formation penalty, then another sack to bring up a 3rd and 23 on the Miami 41. Rather than try and pick up 5+ yards to set up a Nedney FG, they went for it all on a bomb to Josh Morgan, leading to a punt (which, by the way, was fumbled into the end zone by Tarell Brown).

This is the kind of sequence which always seems to kill the Niners in close games, and encapsulates all that’s annoying about the Niners offense -- spotty line play, formation-type penalties at crucial times, and questionable play-calling. Ahh, the Niners, I love ‘em.

All that said, I think they get a road win this week against the Lambs.

The pick: NINERS

Arizona (8-6) at New England (9-5)

The last few weeks, Arizona has had a few chances to show they are for real, and not a mirage constructed out of garbage NFC West wins. Thus far, they have failed. They played the defending champion Giants pretty tough in Week 12, but allowed 37 points at home to lose by eight. The next week, they went on the road against a struggling Eagles team on Thanksgiving, and took one on the chin, 48-20. Last week, they again faced a potential playoff team, and got curb-stomped at home by the Vikings, 35-14.

Yes, they had clinched the division last week and had less to gain from a win than the Vikes, but opening the game by falling behind 21-0 has to be a concern -- especially when considering they did the exact same thing vs. the Eagles. In Philly, it took the 21 minutes to do it. Sunday, it took just over 12 minutes. Arizona also has to be a bit disheartened by the way they’ve not just lost to quality opponents, but looked outclassed.

The Cards get another crack at respectability with a game at New England this week. An icy cold, 10am start against a good team on the road is something Arizona will likely have to face in the playoffs, so this would be a good time to show they’re capable. On the other hand, New England probably needs this game to maintain their tie atop the AFC East and stay in the thick of the playoff hunt.

The pick: PATRIOTS

New Orleans (7-7) at Detroit (0-14)

Time is running out on Marinelli’s Men -- they have but two games to avoid 0-16 infamy. I’ve gone on record as saying Detroit will run the table, but this week they appear to have an outside shot in this, their last home game of the season. (Scoop up those tickets fast, Lions fans, they’re going fast!) The Saints are coming off a tough loss which knocked them out of the playoff race, and have lost Reggie Bush for the season.

On the other hand, I’m sure the Saints don’t want the embarrassment of giving Detroit its only win, New Orleans will have 10 days of preparation time for the Lions, and Drew Brees still has something to shoot for: Brees has an outside chance at Dan Marino’s passing yardage record. Brees needs over 700 yards passing in the last two weeks of the season, and with not much else left to play for, he might be trying to get all of him this week.

The pick: SAINTS

Pittsburgh (11-3) at Tennessee (12-2)

As if last week wasn’t tough enough for the Titans -- they lose a tight one to Houston (due in part to Fisher’s controversial decision to forego a late FG), get a little exposed at QB (Kerry Collins: 15/33, 181 yards, INT), and lose DT Albert Haynesworth to a sprained MCL -- they took another couple of hits as the week went on. First, it was announced both Haynesworth and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch would miss the rest of the regular season, then Haynesworth made the Pro Bowl.

Wait, that last one doesn’t sound bad, right? Well, it is. See, according to Haynesworth’s contract, making the Pro Bowl allows him to be an unrestricted free agent this off-season. While that is a problem the Titans don’t have to deal with until after their season is over, Haynesworth’s injury could cause that to come a whole lot earlier. Last year, the Titans got off to a 6-2 start before Haynesworth got hurt (allowing more than 22 points only once). Tennessee went 0-3 while Haynesworth sat out (allowing at least 28 points in each game), then got back on track once he returned to the lineup, going 4-1 to send the season (and allowing more than 20 points just once -- the Chargers scored 23 on them, but needed OT to do it).

If that same trend holds this year, the Titans could lose both their final two games (Pittsburgh and Indy) and head into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak. Even just one loss -- this week to Pittsburgh -- will likely cost Tennessee home-field throughout the playoffs. The bright side for Tennessee: As pointed out in the comments of Monday’s post by Fooch and Professor Bigelow, the Titans cannot blow their division title or bye, even with a loss to the Colts resulting in a tie atop the NFC South due to a tweak in the tie-breaker rules a few years back.

The pick: STEELERS

San Diego (6-8) at Tampa Bay (9-5)

San Diego: The Chargers aren’t completely out of the AFC West division race just yet. If they win this week, and Buffalo upsets Denver, they can win the division by beating the Broncos the final week of the year. If they stay two games behind the Broncos and beat them next week, they’ll lose the division by a game, and that Ed Hochuli blown call from early in the season would look pretty big. It would essentially be the difference in winning the division or watching the playoffs from their coaches for both the Chargers and Broncos.

Tampa: The Bucs really need to stop the bleeding. After losing two tough division games on the road, they are now the odd team out of the NFC playoff picture (losing tiebreakers to Dallas and Atlanta). Last week, their offense gave them very little despite their D and special teams giving them opportunities (All 10 of their points came off two turnovers -- a Ronde Barber pick led to a TD, and a blocked punt late in the 4th quarter was the only reason they were about to force OT).


Carolina (11-3) at NY Giants (11-3)

The winner of this game automatically clinches home field advantage throughout the playoffs in the NFC. Like the Titans, the Giants seemed a mortal lock to be the top seed in their conference, have stumbled, are now battling injuries headed into the biggest game of the year, and are in danger of entering the playoffs struggling. They can remedy all that with a win on Sunday night, but should they lose, their 2008 season would suddenly look a lot like a mirror image of their 2007 season -- rather than catching fire down the stretch, they could be getting ready to fade.

Speaking of mirror images, Carolina is looking like a pretty close reflection of the 2007 Giants team -- dominant O-line/RB platoon, big play WR, good defense with a good pass rush. It could be their turn to ride that excellent combination to a glorious playoff run. But last year, the giants proved again and again, they could win big games on the road. At this point, I still need to see the Panthers -- and more specifically Jake Delhomme -- prove to me they can do that, too.

The pick: GIANTS

Philadelphia (8-5-1) at Washington (7-7)

By now everybody knows about DeSean Jackson’s infamous play earlier in the year when he dropped the ball before crossing the goal line. If you missed the Monday night, you may have missed Asante Samuel doing the exact same thing while returning an easy pick-six. Well, it was the same until he realized his mistake and quickly picked up the ball before it went out of bounds. How unbelievable is it that two players from the same team made the same mistake, both on Monday night? The odds against that have to be enormous.

The pick: EAGLES

Atlanta (9-5) at Minnesota (9-5)

Falcons: Matt Ryan had one of the worst games of his short career last week, but he continued to show he might already be the best QB in the NFL at throwing on the run. I know that’s probably at least in part hyperbole, but he really is amazing, and reminds me a bit -- just a bit -- of a young Joe Montana. Of course, I’ve also thought the same thing about other QB’s who never really made it through the years, but that’s some of the highest praise I can give.

Ryan seems equally capable of throwing on the run to his right, his left, moving forward in the pocket, or dropping back. He displays touch, and surprising arm-strength, and never seems to give up on a play. He also seems to avoid those big mistakes guys who never give up on plays (Favre, Romo, etc.) usually make. If I had to start a team from scratch, I’m not sure I wouldn’t pick him first. He’s not the best player in the NFL, but he’s very good, plays the most crucial position, and appears to be getting better from week to week.

Vikings: As for the Vikes QB situation, they've announced they're starting Tavaris Jackson this week -- and likely for the foreseeable future -- after he complied a 141. 7 passer rating in a game and a half since taking over the then-injured, now-healthier Gus Frerotte. The question is, if Jackson struggles at home in this ultra-important game, how quickly will Minnesota coach Brad “The ‘Stache” Childress pull the trigger and go to the veteran?

The pick: VIKINGS

Houston (7-7) at Oakland (3-11)

I saw plenty of the Steve Slaton in college at West Virginia, and always had him pegged as a gloried 3rd down back. When he was drafted by the RB-poor Texans, I thought he could be a valuable weapon if used sparingly at first -- on 3rd downs and kick returns. Call it "The Tiki Barber/Brian Westbrook Plan". But when preseason hype had some calling him a fantasy sleeper, I thought people were overrating him. Man, was I wrong.

It’s become clear Slaton has what it takes to be an every down back. His moves and quickness have never been in question, and after 206 carries, he’s shown he can take the pounding. On Sunday, on a big 3rd and 2, he showed that toughness, bulling through Haynesworth and the Titans D-line for the 1st down when it appeared he was stopped. His big day (24 carry, 100 yards) helped the Texans upset the Titans, was his fifth time over the century mark this season, and put him over the 1,000 yard mark. He also iced the game with two long runs in the final minutes, the final one, on a 3rd and 8, ended with him intelligently sliding down in-bounds to keep the clock running and clinch the game.

Slaton is a candidate for Rookie of the Year, and may be the missing piece the Texans offense has been looking for to stabilize their long-dormant running game. If so, this late-season surge could be a sign of things to come in Houston. With a win at Oakland, the Texans will clinch their second straight non-losing year, and give themselves a chance to play for a winning record next week.

The pick: TEXANS

NY Jets (9-5) at Seattle (3-11)

The football gods giveth, and they taketh away. Two weeks ago, you’ll remember the Jets got a 2nd half kick return from Leon Washington to take the lead against the Niners, only to have it called back. Last week, they gave up a 2nd half kick return to Roscoe Parrish to lose the lead to the Bills, only to have that called back as well. Then as a topper, they were the recipients of an early Christmas gift from J.P. Losman, in the form of a game-winning fumble/TD. If not for those breaks, the jets could very well be on the outside of the playoff race looking in. But they likely won’t mean a thing if they can’t get their first win on the west coast after going 0-3 so far this season -- at San Diego, Oakland, and San Francisco.

The pick: JETS

Buffalo (6-8) at Denver (8-6)

While the Denver passing offense has been great (3rd in NFL in passing yards, 5th in TD’s, top 10 in both rating and YPA), their running offense -- once their strength, has taken a back seat. On the surface, the numbers don’t look too bad -- the Broncos are averaging 4.5 YPC (5th in the NFL) -- but they're 16th in rushing yards, 19th in rush TD’s, and way back at 26th in attempts. A healthy YPC average is less useful when it is attained by surprising people with the run, rather than dictating with it. So, how did the running game fall so far behind the passing game in Denver? In a word, attrition. The Broncos have had such a revolving door at RB, Shanahan would rather rely on Cutler and their receivers than whoever they got back there.

First, big free agent pickup Travis Henry forced his own suspension/release with drug use. Then replacements Andre Hall, Michael Pittman and Selvin Young were hurt (Young missed seven of eight games prior to last week when he had a key fumble). Converted FB turned starting RB Peyton Hillis was very impressive, then was lost for the season to yet another injury. So, the Broncos have been forced to use guys named Ryan Torain and P.J. Pope, and even re-signed their former RB, Tatum Bell, despite the fact he was released by the Lions, and is now best known for stealing a teammate’s luggage. Last I heard, the Broncos had just placed this ad on Craig’s List: "RB WANTED -- NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY".

The pick: BRONCOS

Green Bay (5-9) at Chicago (8-6)

With Minnesota playing another potential playoff team, the Bears need to win, and hope Minnesota stumbles. They’re in good position to do just that -- Green Bay is on a horrendous slide, blowing a string of close games, and the Bears have had 10 days of preparation since their win over the Saints.

In that Thursday night game vs. New Orleans, I noticed something interesting. I’ve been paying attention to audible fan reaction a lot this season. It began when I noticed that in a lot of NFL stadiums, the fans don’t know exactly when to cheer. For instance, when a referee calls a penalty for “illegal contact”, a savvy fan base like Pittsburgh knows right away the penalty is on the defense, while in Carolina there’s no reaction until the ref says “defense”. In Chicago last Thursday, the Bears were driving for an important score late, and TE Greg Olsen appeared to get out of bounds. At the very moment the side judge wound his arm to signal to keep the clock running, the crowd let out a thunderous barrage of boos. That’s a good crowd.

The pick: BEARS