After getting beaten badly by the Bears on Monday night, the Cowboys are looking like playoff long shots. Is there any hope for Tony Romo and company? Plus, an amazing comeback tale in Baltimore and the weekly mailbag
Oh, it was cold last night? The Super Bowl’s outside, in northern New Jersey, in eight weeks. It’s going to be cold then. Maybe not Siberian cold, but cold.
You had injuries to deal with last night? You think you’re not going to get more hurt by the first weekend of January?
You had some good receivers to deal with last night, the great Brandon Marshall and the star-in-the-making Alshon Jeffery? You won’t face better, but you do have a couple of hot ones, DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper, to cover in Week 17.
If you’re still in the race by then, Dallas.
This Cowboys team smells an awful lot like the past two editions. Which is to say, 8-8. Imagine the grave disappointment of a third straight .500 season for the Cowboys. That’s what Dallas (7-6) looked like last night in the 45-28 wipeout at Chicago, in a game played in negative temperatures, courtesy the wind off Lake Michigan.
If you’re a Dallas fan, you’d like some small piece of good news after that egg-laying last night at Soldier Field. I don’t blame you. I can offer you one ray of brightness: the schedule in the last three weeks of the season for the Cowboys and NFC East-leading Eagles, one game up on Dallas in first place with three to play. Here it is:
at Minnesota (3-9-1)
vs. Chicago (7-6)
at Dallas (7-6)
vs. Green Bay (6-6-1)
at Washington (3-10)
vs. Philadelphia (8-5)
The schedule edge goes to Dallas. The Cowboys have two at home and the Eagles two on the road. The finale is Eagles-Cowboys in Texas. But the schedule’s hardly a killer for the Eagles. Dallas will be rooting hard for Matt Flynn to play for the Packers this weekend at Dallas—because that means Aaron Rodgers won’t be in there, still nursing a broken collarbone.
But it might not mean much if the Eagles, on a four-game winning streak, don’t fall back to earth a bit. As Cowboys fans saw last night (unless they threw something at the TV, rendering it black), the team broke a two-game streak of competent defense with a frightening performance. The first eight Chicago possessions: touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal. The depleted defensive front got gashed by Matt Forte. A backup quarterback (but for how long?), Josh McCown, completed 75 percent of his throws for four touchdowns and no picks. Interceptions. Don’t remind the Cowboys. They dropped three.
In short, Dallas is in big trouble. The only way the Cowboys will get out of it is with Matt Flynn playing this first week, continued chaos in Washington the second week … and Nick Foles succumbing to playoff pressure in the third. But the way that defense is playing, the only way the Cowboys make the playoffs is by winning shootouts. That’s never a recipe for success.
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Like he never left
In late July, Super Bowl champion quarterback Joe Flacco’s favorite target, tight end Dennis Pitta, suffered a hip dislocation and fracture. It was assumed he’d be out for the year, and though the Ravens kept him on the IR-designated-to-return list, it was more hope than logic. But last week, after a second week of practicing full speed without pain in his surgically repaired right hip, Pitta was deemed ready to play … just 19 weeks after lying in a heap on the Ravens’ practice field at the start of the team’s training camp.
Pitta’s not a big talker—that’s probably why he fits well with the reserved Flacco—and since he was not volunteering anything as his return drew near, it was Flacco who drew him out.
“What’s it feel like to be back?’’ Flacco said to him in the home locker room in Baltimore Sunday morning, as the Ravens dressed before their game with Minnesota.
“Like normal,’’ Pitta said. “Like I’ve been playing all year.”
That’s how he looked once he got on the field. Playing without restriction and looking very much like the intermediate and deep threat who had endeared Flacco to him, Pitta played 36 snaps, was targeted 11 times, caught six passes for 48 yards and scored on a one-yard TD catch in the final minutes that gave Baltimore one of its three leads in the last three minutes.
Afterward, the most important thing was nothing hurt—at least according to Pitta. “I felt like I came back from the dead,’’ he said, chuckling, over the phone from Baltimore. “I was a little mad early, because I had a drop early in the game. But the best thing was all through the game, in those slippery conditions, I never felt it once. That’s the best news. After a while, I just never thought about it anymore.”
He laid out to catch one pass parallel to the ground across the middle from Flacco, and his touchdown catch was a classic tight end move—using his body to box out and eliminate the defender, before the ball settled in Pitta's gut.
The Ravens might have the toughest slate of any marginal playoff contender in the last three weeks—at Detroit, New England, and at Cincinnati to close—and, at 7-6, they probably have to go at least 2-1 in those three to have a good chance to play in the postseason. But with the return of Flacco's favorite target, no AFC contender got the kind of adrenalin shot the Super Bowl champs got over the weekend. I look at the Ravens this way, as their D starts to play better and they show some sparks running it: Don't let them in the tournament. They’ll knock off somebody.
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Now let's head to Page 2 for your email...
THE JAGS NEED MUCH MORE. How real is this late-season push by the Jags? Any indications that the arrow is truly pointing up for next season and beyond? What should David Caldwell and Gus Bradley be focusing on to make this thing truly a consistent and long-term turnaround?
I once asked George Young, the former GM of the Giants (now deceased), about building a strong franchise. He talked about building the two lines and making sure those were solid before worrying about some of the more starry skill players. It didn’t quite work out that way for the Giants, who drafted Phil Simms soon after Young arrived, but his point was that a team can’t be strong until it can protect the quarterback and attack the quarterback with equal skill. That’s why I believe that David Caldwell and Gus Bradley will look to solidify both lines in free agency and the draft in 2014.
For instance, following the injury to first-round pick Luke Joeckel this year, the Jaguars had to resort to rookie free agents and guys signed off the street to play the tackle positions. So Jacksonville must buttress its offensive line, probably above anything else. On defense, there isn’t one pass rusher that would keep an offensive coordinator awake at night. Jason Babin is a useful piece, but not a franchise rusher. So if you asked me what the Jags must look for in the off-season, I would say three things: a tackle to compliment Joeckel, one pass-rush prospect, and obviously a quarterback. It’s unrealistic to think they’ll get all in one offseason.
SHOULD TRIPLETTE BE FIRED? After reading your excellent series on NFL referees, I find it very interesting that Jeff Triplette continues to keep his job. Think of the headlines he has made over the past 10 or more years: Hitting Orlando Brown in the eye with his flag, essentially ending his career, misstating the overtime rules, the back-to-back debacles this year. How many "warnings" does an official get before he is shown the door?
—Jeff Buchholtz, Columbus, Ohio
The problem with anecdotal evidence like the moments you point to is that it’s possible that Jeff Triplette is a highly-rated referee. I know it doesn’t seem that way, but these grades are behind an iron curtain of secrecy and I think that we could probably look at any official and point out three or four egregious errors over a decade or longer. I’m not defending Triplette. I just don’t know for sure that he is the worst referee in the league or worthy of dismissal, even though I believe he’s had some grievous errors this year.
A BUT FOR BREES. It seems like you and a number of other members of the national media can never give Drew Brees a straight compliment. It is always tempered with a “but.” Like in this week's column, after Brees got to 50,000 yards eight games faster than anyone in history, you wrote that he is "fortunate, obviously, to have great receivers like Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham." No other elite quarterback (Manning, Brady, Rodgers, etc.) is tempered with the buts about the obvious talent around them.
In my opinion, you’re being too sensitive. Please go back and search “Peter King Drew Brees” and look at some of the things I’ve written about Brees — you’d think I was writing about some combination of Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana. If you watched Sunday night’s game and don’t acknowledge the fact that Marques Colston made a couple of superb catches, and Jimmy Graham is the most dangerous tight end in football, I think you and I are watching a different game. I remember a couple of years ago when I said that you could make a very smart argument that Drew Brees has been the best quarterback in football since arriving in New Orleans, the Brady and Manning fans killed me for it. That’s my thought anyway.
SEND A BUC TO THE BEACH. I know nobody notices Lavonte David because he plays for Tampa, but he deserves some recognition. On Sunday he became the only linebacker in history to record six sacks and five interceptions in a season, and he's top 5 in tackles. He's also ninth in pro bowl voting at his position, which is a complete joke. Please show him some love, and help get Lavonte David to Hawaii!
You just helped the cause, my man. Thank you.
THE HISTORY OF ONSIDE KICKS. Would you consider doing a story about the history of the onside kick? I'm interested in knowing if the onside kick was intended in the original rules. It's always seemed like the silliest rule in sports, and possibly an unintended loophole. Think about it. Why would the scoring team even have the possibility of gaining possession? Most people I ask say, "Well, it makes the game exciting, and keeps fans’ hopes alive." That seems silly. And games won where a team had to recover an onside kick feel shallow.
—Daniel Ludwig, West Hartford, Conn.
This is a really cool question. I love it. Thanks for bringing it up. I am going to put it on my offseason story list.