Five Things I Think About the Second Half of the Season:
1. I think the Colts fascinate me, and will continue to do so, win or lose. How does a team with some major weaknesses -- a team that was pretty much invented by a new coach and GM and staff in the offseason -- go 4-1 when its coach gets yanked away due to a life-threatening disease?
"The whole thing's for Spielberg,'' interim coach Bruce Arians told me Sunday night, meaning Steven. Meaning it's going to be a movie someday. Watching the Colts, no question inspiration helps. But a franchise quarterback playing very well does too, with a receiver group that's much better than it should be at such a young age (excepting Reggie Wayne, of course). And on defense, the Colts are getting good pressure, but I shake my head at the production when I see this stat: Indy's allowed 14 touchdown passes with just two interceptions. The Colts will have to be better in the back end if the Cinderella season is to progress to the playoffs.
2. I think the two rookies that will magnetize me to their games in the second half are Andrew Luck and Doug Martin. I asked Luck on Sunday to letter-grade the first eight games of his pro career. "Lot of improvement needed,'' he said. Come on now ... grade, please. "C,'' Luck said. "C is average. Average." Well, you're a big liar, Andrew Luck. Against the best third-down defense in football coming into the game Sunday -- Miami -- Luck converted 3rd-and-12, -14, -20, -10, -16 and -11. In his eighth game in the NFL. If that's average, then I'm Rudyard Kipling. As for Martin, he's a meteor streaking across the NFL sky: 54 carries, 386 yards, five touchdowns in his last two games. And he has a coach who's going to keep feeding him.
3. I think the competition for Comeback Player of the Year will be fun. Peyton Manning, returning from four neck procedures in two seasons, is on pace to throw for more yards, 4,808, than he ever has in a season. Adrian Peterson, who played a real game less than nine months after major knee reconstruction, is averaging 106 yards rushing a game. Give me Manning now -- but it's going to be a race.
4. I think the new coaching derby will be intense for the second straight year. Usually, one year of upheaval in head-coaching is followed by a calm year. Three changes in 2011, seven in 2012 ... so 2013 should be low. This year may not be so logical. Coaches in big trouble: Pat Shurmur (Cleveland), Norv Turner (San Diego), Andy Reid (Philadelphia), Romeo Crennel (Kansas City), Jason Garrett (Dallas). Coaches in trouble: Chan Gailey (Buffalo), Mike Munchak (Tennessee), Ron Rivera (Carolina). Coaches who will be hot in the market: Sean Payton (if free), Oregon's Chip Kelly (if interested).
5. I think there's no '07 Patriots. The NFL has TV viewers right where it wants them: on the edge of their seats. Who's this year's '11 Giants? Dark horses with the best shot to come out of the pack: Seattle and Denver. And the end of the season, as we sit here now, could be riveting. Houston-Indy twice in the last three weeks ... New England's home slate in December (Houston, San Francisco, Miami) is killer ... Denver faces one team over .500 in the last eight games ... Baltimore hosts both Mannings, on Dec. 16 and 23.
And now for your email:
THE BRONCOS FAN THANKS JOSH MCDANIELS. "As a diehard Bronco fan I'm no Josh McDaniels apologist, but with all his mistakes and having drafted Tim Tebow that year, it's easy to overlook one gem: bucking conventional wisdom and drafting Demaryius Thomas with Dez Bryant still on the board. We're far along enough now to say that was definitely the right call, no? Somehow I don't think Bryant would respond to Peyton Manning's mandate for accountability like Thomas has.''-- From Hayes, of Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas
Good point. In the demonization of coaches and GMs when things go bad, you sometimes forget that some of the decisions made turn out to be good ones. I still recall thinking on the overtime touchdown from Tebow to Thomas to beat Pittsburgh last year how conflicted Denver fans who thought Tebow wasn't the answer must have felt.
ON CHICAGO, AND THE FINE FIFTEEN IN GENERAL. "Just a word of caution on the Bears. The teams they have beaten have a combined record of 21-36 (.368). The only good team they played was the Packers and to quote Chicago columnist Mike Inrem, "The Packers crushed the Bears." The Bears have been truly impressive against bad teams, but the second half of the season will really tell the tale beginning with Houston at home this week and the 49ers on the road the week after.''-- From Dave, of Naperville, Ill.
All true. In ranking the teams each week, I try to balance what's happened recently with how a team has played through the season. This week, for instance, it pained me to put the Giants behind the 49ers. Three weeks ago, the Giants throttled the Niners in San Francisco, so the ranking didn't make much sense. But when I do the rankings I do them on the basis of who I think would win if they played on a neutral field. And today, on a neutral field, I'd pick the Niners to beat the Giants. Same at the top of the ranking right now. I'd been savaged by Falcons fans on Twitter, angry that I don't have Atlanta, the only unbeaten team in football, as the number one team. I like Houston a little better right now, even after the Green Bay rout of the Texans. Maybe, but if Atlanta and Houston played on a neutral field right now, I'd pick Houston, because I like what their defensive pressure can do.
As for the Bears, there's not much not to like. They've got a retooled passing game with a receiver on pace for a 1,594-yard season, a franchise back averaging 5.0 yards a carry, a scary-good defense, and very good special teams. If Chicago's offense line can protect Jay Cutler, the Bears have a good chance to win the NFC -- but remember, the Falcons, Niners, Giants and Packers do too. It's going to be a great last eight weeks of the regular season.
ON STEELER TRAVEL. "Why are people (yourself included) acting like the Steelers walked barefoot (both ways) in the snow from the top of Mount Everest to play the Giants Sunday? So they didn't spend the night before the game in a hotel. They had a 53- minute flight that morning. It's not like they had to back pack across eastern Europe, beg for food, and then play a game. I bet there are players on the Steelers who live further than 53 minutes away from Heinz Field. I bet those guys still manage to get the standard amount of rest and find food before the game.''-- From Todd, of Foxboro, Mass.
You might have me confused with someone who actually said it was an obstacle to winning. I wrote: "[Steelers coach Mike] Tomlin didn't make a big deal of it, which was smart. 'A lot more people have a lot more adversity than what we had on this trip,' Tomlin said. Not only was it not a particularly difficult hardship, it would have sounded absurd to complain about logistics when thousands of people had homes and property destroyed.''
WELL, THIS IS AN INTERESTING TAKE. "I apologize for the rant but after seeing Arian Foster from the Texans looking like a baby bird getting fed by its mother when getting water I couldn't hold it back anymore. I'm tired of watching football player standing there and letting someone squirt water in their mouths both on and off the bench. I know there are going to be a lot of reasons (time, face mask etc...) put out there. But for me those can be left at the door. Might as well turn in your man card if you need someone to squirt water in your mouth. Not sure why this bugs me so much. Am I the only one?''-- From Murray Galbraith, of Shawnigan Lake, British Columbia
I believe so.
ON THE CANCELLATION OF THE NEW YORK MARATHON. "Given your dual experience as a runner and someone who's job is dependent on the NFL, I'd love to get your take on the decision to cancel the NYC Marathon (I agree with it) but to still proceed with the Giants-Steelers game at the Meadowlands? It seems to me if the logic that the Marathon detracts resources away from people who need it, doesn't a football game do the same? Unless I missed the news that the Giants/Steelers/NFL were donating all proceeds from the game to the Red Cross. Thoughts?''-- From Jason, of Providence
I favored the cancellation of the Marathon because of the crassness of running close to neighborhoods in shambles, with people who don't know where they're sleeping that night. I favored the Giants and Steelers playing. If the governor hadn't favored it, he would have told commissioner Roger Goodell, and I'm sure the league would have considered either postponing the game or moving it. It was an arduous task to get to the game for many, yes. But this was one time I felt many people, and not just those in the stadium, were served by the game being played. Read the reactions of Giants fans from my column yesterday. I think they wanted three hours of relief, three hours of normalcy. I understand the fuel and transportation issues. But I don't think they overrode the good reasons for playing the game.
DOUG MARTIN'S PRETTY GOOD. "Love the column. Has kept me going the past 15 years in Asia. A lot has been talked about the quarterbacks of this rookie class but what about Doug Martin as offensive rookie of the year? He seems to be doing as much for the Bucs as any of the QB's for their teams.''-- From Bill, of Hong Kong
He's definitely on the list, and if he comes close to winning the rushing title -- which he may do considering how much the Bucs run the ball -- I guarantee you he'll get some votes.