Friday November 18th, 2011

A mystery shrouds a very important game this weekend. Two mysteries, actually. Will Ray Lewis' 57-game starting streak at the center of the Baltimore Ravens' defense end when the Bengals come to town Sunday? And will A.J. Green, the most dangerous rookie receiver in football, be there for Andy Dalton and the Bengals?

As of mid-morning today, the answers appeared to be very likely and probably not.

Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County (Md.) Times reported late Thursday night that Lewis would miss the game with a toe injury suffered in Sunday's loss at Seattle. Wilson said Lewis had his toe examined in south Florida Thursday, and the exam revealed damage that would keep him out for at least a week and maybe longer. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh refused comment on Lewis this morning to me, but I am told by a league source that Lewis hopes to miss only one game and play next week. The big problem with that is it's a short week: The Ravens play four days after facing the Bengals, in a Thursday night game against San Francisco.

Without Lewis, it's likely Dannell Ellerbe will make his fifth career start after coming to the Ravens in 2009 as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia. And no player in the Baltimore lineup will have the kind of spotlight on him that Ellerbe will.

For the Bengals, Green spent his third straight practice day on the sidelines today, and it's increasingly unlikely he'll play in the land of crab cakes Sunday. Bad news for Dalton, because Green's his only deep threat. Now he'll likely have to make do with Andre Caldwell, Jerome Simpson and emerging smurf receiver Andrew Hawkins from Toledo ... none of whom strike fear into corners the way Green does.

I asked Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis this week -- before the scope of either key player's injury became clear -- if Dalton was ready to follow up his losing performance against Pittsburgh with a sharper day against Baltimore.

"The barometer I go by,'' Lewis said, "is how we practice. And our practice this week is much faster, much crisper. To be ready to play against a speed defense like Baltimore, you've got to practice fast -- and I can see us doing that this week.

"Andy has handled everything like a veteran -- almost since he's gotten here. If the script for practice gets screwed up in some way. Today a play was called wrong, and Andy fixed it, without stopping the practice. He's a coach's best friend. There's nothing we've seen so far that indicates the game is ever too big for him, so I doubt we'll see that this weekend in Baltimore.''

There should be Tebowmania, locally and nationally, after Broncos 17, Jets 13, and after Tim Tebow drove the Broncos 95 yards in the final minutes to the winning touchdown. Which, of course, he ran for. But let's look at three quite important facts from this game, and from Denver's 4-1 stretch since Tebow took the starting job from Kyle Orton:

• Denver's defense, led by rookie Von Miller and returning pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil, has been rampaging in the last month. Miller overran Wayne Hunter for a vital sack on the Jets' final drive Thursday night, and the Broncos have had 13 sacks in the four wins under Tebow. They've also allowed just 62 points in those four wins ... and allowed a sputtering offense to have a chance to win those close games late.

• Tebow's completion percentage hasn't topped 50 percent in a single game this year. But in 20 quarters since being named the starter, he's fumbled once and thrown one interception -- and he's been turnover-free in the four wins.

• One more thing about the Denver defense I've loved: In the four wins, it's allowed just 23.5 percent of third downs to be converted into firsts. That's pressure defense right there.

Fun podcast this week with Rick Gosselin, Dallas Morning News columnist and respected Pro Football Hall of Fame voter; founder Neil Hornsby; and regular podguest Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The podcast on iTunes. The podcast on

Gosselin on the 2012 Hall class: "I know the Hall bristles when you call it a clean-up class, but I think this is the clean-up class ... You have some good receivers, you have a couple good running backs, but you don't have that marquee player. That opens the door for your blockers and your defenders.''

Gosselin on the backlog of receivers waiting -- which can only get worse: "I think the committee is having a problem getting a grasp on this 1,000-catch thing. We haven't determined if 1,000 catches is the ability of the player or the style of the game. Ten years ago if you told me a guy caught 1,000 balls, I'd say he's a slam-dunk, first-ballot guy. But now we got seven guys with a 1,000 catches. [And] two more are on the doorstep this year.''

Hornsby on San Francisco defensive lineman Justin Smith: I have no idea why people don't see him [Smith] for the player that he is. We've had him rated our top 3-4 defensive end for the last three of four years. Consistently, he grades out not just at the top of the pack but so far in front of the rest that it's quite difficult to believe that he's that much better. But every single time you watch him ... you know that you're going to get everything from him. It's just fantastic to watch him. We [Pro Football Focus] love him. We absolutely love him to death.''

McGinn on the team that has the best chance to beat undefeated Green Bay: "I see them losing to a team that can apply four-man pressure, keep [their] safeties back and minimize the yards after the catch. And there are candidates that can do that. Certainly the Detroit Lions can rush the passer. ... You got the New York Giants, they can certainly do it with four men. The Oakland Raiders, I mean look at what they did to the Chargers [eight] days ago. That was phenomenal pressure. They can do it. The Bears with Peppers and some good inside people, they can do it as well. And the Steelers four-man rush ... and Baltimore certainly with their combination.''

Chicago left guard Edwin Williams (number 70). Just when the Bears started to get some cohesion on the shaky offensive line -- they'd started the same five guys four games in a row, and won them all -- left guard Chris Williams went down for the season with a dislocated wrist last week. Into the breach steps the third left guard of the year, Edwin Williams, 24, an undrafted free-agent from Maryland in 2010. "He wasn't ready, completely, last year,'' said coach Lovie Smith this week. "But since then, he's made a lot of progress. He's ready now.'' We'll find out a lot in the next two weeks -- first with a lesser test against San Diego Sunday, and then at Oakland next week, when the Raiders do a lot to confuse and challenge an offensive line.

1. Divining Tebow. He hasn't completed half his throws in any of his five starts, yet the Broncos are 4-1 in those starts. I can't wait to hear the explanations on weekend TV of why Denver keeps winning -- and they'd better include the pressure defense the Broncos have been playing.

2. Chasing the G-Men. Dallas is a game behind the Giants with an easier schedule down the stretch. The Cowboys are at Washington Sunday, New York hosting the uber-mysterious Eagles. Dallas and New York have two games left against each other. Did someone say, "It's getting hot in here?''

3. Rating the hot seats. Half of Philly wants Andy Reid -- with nine playoff seasons in 12 years coaching the Eagles -- gone yesterday. And it'll be interesting to take the temperatures on coach Norv Turner (contract up after 2013) and GM A.J. Smith of the Chargers (up after 2014) if the Chargers lose their fifth in a row at Chicago.

4. Perfecting the Pack. Green Bay aims for 10-0 at home against Tampa Bay, and let's just say I like their chances. The Bucs have lost four of the last five ... by an average of 22.5 per game. It'll be interesting to watch Mike McCarthy, with a physical game at Detroit looming four days down the road, and see if he pulls many of his starters if he leads big in the fourth quarter.

5. Healing Ben. Good week for the Steelers to have a bye. Ben Roethlisberger has a fracture of his throwing thumb, and their offensive line needs a breather too.

6. Re-loving the Lions. Natives are getting nervous. Detroit needs a dominating day against Carolina at home to shake off the memory of losing three of the last four -- and allowing 85 points in the three losses, and seeing Matthew Stafford play the worst he's played in a long time.

7. Drooling Raiders. The Vikings are coming off a short week, giving up 45 points on Monday night, and losing ace corner Antoine Winfield (broken collarbone) for the season. In comes rested and revitalized Carson Palmer, who showed eight days ago he's still got a deep arm that can strike fear into NFL secondaries. Unless Jared Allen can sack Palmer eight times, I sort of like the Raiders. A lot.

8. Clinching the West. Well, sort of. A San Francisco win (over John Skelton and the 3-6 Cards) and a Seattle loss (at St. Louis) would clinch no worse than a tie of the NFC West title for the 49ers ... before Thanksgiving. Now, the tiebreakers could still confound things, but under this scenario, San Francisco would have a six-game lead with six to play.

9. Winning the West. In the AFC West by weekend's end, every team will have played 10 games. As of this morning, Oakland and Denver have five wins, San Diego and Kansas City four. There is, of course a chance they could all finish the weekend with five wins, but that would entail Christian Ponder playing the game of his professional life against the hard-charging Raid-uhs, and Tyler Palko pulling off a quite the unlikely feat Monday night at New England. Speaking of that ...

10. Taming Tyler. What a story. Two years Palko was cut by the California Redwoods. You know, the United Football League Redwoods. Now he takes the 4-5 Chiefs' flickering (and that's putting it optimistically) playoff hopes into his hands at Foxboro Monday night. I believe Bill Belichick might throw a couple of looks at Palko the young man has never seen.

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