Steve Nehf/Getty Images; Maddie Meyer/Getty Images; Frank Victores/AP
By Gary Gramling
November 21, 2015

1. I think it’s too early to hold a candlelight vigil for Peyton Manning.

I threw this theory around last offseason and was routinely shouted down at the office, but what if the Broncos gave Peyton the Matt Harvey treatment and sat him for a few starts midseason? If you’re Denver, your No. 1 priority is having Peyton Manning as healthy as possible for the playoffs. In fact, last January, Greg Bedard argued that Manning was just fine early in the regular season when he was 100%. His problems stemmed from the nagging injuries that piled up over the course of the year, culminating in that hot-garbage outing against the Colts in the playoffs.

Consider Manning’s performances in September, when he was adjusting to life with Gary Kubiak but was seemingly healthy (well, as healthy as a 39-year-old with serious neck problems can be): 63.8% completions, 251.7 yards/game, 5 TD, 3 INT, 83.3 passer rating. And that included a comeback win in Kansas City, the very team that just ate his soul. Those aren’t the statistics of a world-beater, but certainly they’re good enough to beat just about anyone as long as the defense is playing up to its reputation.

The Broncos have a three-game lead in the AFC West and the best defense in football. The road to Super Bowl 50 will go through Foxborough; it’s probably too late to do anything about that. The regular season is almost an afterthought now. Can a 39-year-old Manning win in the January cold? Maybe not. But if he gets three or four weeks off, and has a chance to go into the playoffs fresh and healthy-ish, it gives the Broncos the best chance they could possibly have at a Super Bowl run.

• WHAT 54 NFL PASSES TELL US ABOUT BROCK OSWEILER: Peyton Manning’s backup will make his first career start against the Bears—and against his old coaches who know his weaknesses.

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2. I think, while the six New England states are flying flags at half-mast in memory of the fifth metatarsal in Julian Edelman’s left foot, folks forget that he wasn’t the original heir to the Wes Welker throne. That was Danny Amendola.

When the Patriots and Welker parted ways after the 2012 season, Amendola was brought in from St. Louis on a five-year, $31 million deal (with $10 million guaranteed), presumably to be Tom Brady’s new slot machine. It didn’t take long for Amendola to live up to his reputation for being injury-prone in that first season: He had 10 catches in his Patriots debut, but also tore a groin muscle. Julian Edelman slid into a bigger role. And, as Paul Harvey would say, now you know the rest of the story.

Amendola has since become an expensive role player, a third receiver (and, in a New England offense that has Rob Gronkowski and has had backs like Shane Vereen and Dion Lewis, that’s more like a fourth or fifth receiver) and return specialist.

Now, with Edelman going down, Amendola has a chance to play the role he was originally expected to fill. Amendola is more sure-handed than Edelman and has a knack for finding soft spots in coverage. But he lacks the quick-twitch athleticism and separation skills of Welker or Edelman. (He also doesn’t run-block as well as Edelman.) Many of Amendola’s catches this season have come courtesy of the attention Gronkowski and Edelman draw, leaving Amendola to work against soft zones and No. 4 cornerbacks.

One week ago, the Patriots offense was held (relatively) in check in East Rutherford. If they’re going to get back on track Monday night, Amendola has to be the receiver that they thought he was three-and-a-half years ago.

• BARGAIN-BIN BRADY: Arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history plays on a contact befitting a career journeyman. Andrew Brandt breaks down Brady’s bizarre deal.

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3a. I think one thing is clear: If Andy Dalton took offense to a joke that wouldn’t have raised eyebrows in a second-grade classroom, he clearly does not have a case of rabbit ears. Because if he heard what folks say about him every January…

3b. I think, on the subject of Andy Dalton, Bengals fans have to have that old, familiar, uneasy feeling in the pit of their stomachs. And for once, it has nothing to do with skyline chili [rim shot!].

Dalton was bad on Monday night. Very bad. Yup, he got little help, as Tyler Eiftert dropped three passes and A.J. Green’s fumble killed the last drive. But Dalton also caught one huge and one decent-sized break in the fourth quarter: Andre Hal dropped an easy interception at the Bengals’ 25, a ball that should have never been thrown. And on a third down on the Bengals’ second-to-last drive, Johnathan Joseph dropped a catchable interception on the sideline, costing the Texans some 30 yards of field position.

So really, this game should have been out of reach long before Quintin Demps pried the ball out of Green’s hands. The Texans have held two opponents to less than 300 yards of offense this season. One was Andy Dalton and the Bengals. The other was Zach Mettenberger and the Titans.

I don’t need to waste more ink re-capping the late-season follies of the Red Rifle. And when you’re 8-1 with a two-and-a-half game lead in your division, there’s no such thing as a must-win in mid-November. But for the psychological well-being of the Queen City, Dalton needs to be, let’s say “better than terrible” Sunday night in Glendale.

• ANDY DALTON AND BENGALS FANS: IT’S COMPLICATED: Infamously booed by the hometown crowd at the MLB All-Star Game in July, Andy Dalton is winning over even the most skeptical Cincy supporters by his performance during an unbeaten start. What would really seal the deal? That’s obvious.

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4. I think I have enjoyed watching the Vikings’ Terence Newman thoroughly pummel Father Time this autumn (he’s older than me… maybe I gave up on my dream of being a shutdown corner too soon).

But my favorite thing about Newman’s career is looking at that Cowboys roster from his rookie year. Bill Parcells was still coaching! Tony Romo was buried on the depth chart, behind Quincy Carter and Chad Hutchinson! Troy Hambrick nearly rushed for 1,000 yards! Dat Nguyen was their leading tackler! And Jason Witten… was a rock, catching 35 passes, because some things never change.

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5. I think the Greg Hardy distraction factor has been overblown during the Brandon Weeden/Matt Cassel-fueled collapse. But boy, that 0-5 record Dallas has posted since Hardy joined the team… makes you think karma is alive and well.

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6. I think the folks at that little mom-n-pop store, Nike, are just trying to make a buck in a tough economy. But enough with these fashion abominations on Thursday Night Football.

Thursday night’s matchup between the Jaguars and Titans was already visually offensive for so many reasons.

Just the fourth quarter alone: Blake Bortles’ interception, Brett Kern’s punt, Allen Hurns’ decision, when trying to run out the clock, to slide to stay inbounds… short of the first-down marker!, Mariota taking a sack on the (merciful) final play.

But the Jaguars’ gold uniforms were the biggest eyesore of all. They looked like living statues (you know, how your eccentric cousin who went to school for performing arts makes his or her money). As far as wardrobes go, a gold Jaguars jersey ranks just behind a pit-stained t-shirt with a KICK ME sign taped on the back.

One is a pan-handling street performer and one is Blake Bortles. Thanks to Nike and Thursday Night Football, it is LITERALLY IMPOSSIBLE TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE!

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, just because I insist on writing this column on my ol’ Hermes 3000 while listening to Paul Harvey before I stroll down to the post office and mail it off to The MMQB news desk. But this is the way it works: The home team chooses to wear a jersey that is one of their team colors, and the visiting team wears white (flip it if you’re the Dallas Cowboys, or if it’s really hot out on gameday).

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7. I think I think some things about college football

a. Too soon, I know. But wow, what an immensely disappointing season for Ohio State. They are miles better talent-wise than anyone they faced.

b. Ezekiel Elliott’s post-game comments will make for some fun talk show fodder this week, but it’s a whole lot of nothing. It’s a frustrated 20-year-old with microphones in front of him. And as for criticizing the play-calling: Apparently he battled a skin infection on his shin all week, which probably affected his workload. But more than that, the Buckeyes’ defense couldn’t get off the field. The offense only ran 45 plays, and Elliott got the ball on 12 of them.

c. If Ohio State got into the playoff last year, there will be at least one, if not two (depending on how the next couple weeks play out) Big Ten teams getting in this year.

d. At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves (and it’s draft talk in November, so we’re already ahead of ourselves): You have to check out UCLA’s Josh Rosen. Aside from a catastrophic injury, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Rosen is not the top overall pick of the 2018 draft.

e. Just in case you didn’t think conference title games were a complete farce: Florida, which has already clinched the SEC East, needed overtime to beat Florida Atlantic, a two-win team from Conference USA (and the Gators were outgained in the process).

The SEC East has not won the conference title game since 2008. Is that a true “conference championship”? And the gap between the Big Ten East and West is equally large, and threatening to grow larger if Jim Harbaugh sticks around in Ann Arbor.

f. UConn’s Bob Diaco should be at or near the top of the list for any big-conference program looking for a new head coach. (Though for Diaco’s sake, I hope he takes a long look at Randy Edsall as a cautionary tale.)

g. Okay, College Football Playoff committee. A tale of two top-five teams, before Saturday’s shakeup.

On one hand you had Ohio State, which had performed well below expectations. They hadn’t played any of the, oh, top 50 or so teams in college football this season due to a back-loaded schedule and the watering down of the Big Ten, but if you’re looking at 2015 in a vacuum, a team that was involved in dogfights with Northern Illinois and Minnesota on their own field, and with Indiana on the road, does not have the résumé of one of the nation’s four best teams. However, Ohio State is, by a wide margin, the nation’s most talented team. So if you’re going to take last year’s tact and just say the regular season doesn’t really matter, then go ahead and call the Buckeyes a playoff team.

On the other hand, Iowa. I love what Kirk Ferentz does with that program, but no reasonable human being can argue that the Hawkeyes, from a talent standpoint, are one of the best 15 teams in the nation. However, because they’ve run the table, they get a No. 5 ranking? That seems to be in direct contrast with the assessment of Ohio State.

So which is it: 2015 performance, or (as it was a year ago) how teams were assessed in August?

Again, the weekly “unveiling” of the playoff rankings remains an absurd practice. Just wait and unveil them after the season is over; that way you only look like a bunch of numbskulls once a year.

h. College football officiating is an embarrassment. And the use of replay after seemingly every play just underlines how helpless the guys in the striped shirts truly are.

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8. I think, while you’re counting down the hours to kickoff, you should spend some time with The MMQB Read of the Week:

Do you love football? No, do you really love football? Then you have to read this; Peter King embedded with Carson Palmer for a week of preparation in the lead up to a game. It’s how a quarterback crams for nearly 200 plays, plus all of their possible permutations and adjustments—in less than a week. I say this with the utmost confidence and without even a hint of hyperbole: There is a legitimate chance it is the most fascinating thing you will ever read about the NFL.

Here’s Part I.

And here’s Part II.

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Pictured: The last two human beings to win games as the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback. Can you name them both? (Don’t say it out loud, other people might want to guess.)
Eric Gay/AP

9. Twelve-plus things I think about Sunday’s 12 games:

a. A week ago, Davante Adams managed to make Nevin Lawson look like Revis 2.0 last week. Nevin Lawson is not very good. Neither is Crezdon Butler, who could be filling in for an injured Lawson. I expect Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Co. to prove that theory 100% true when the Raiders visit Ford Field on Sunday.

b. I know I harp on this every week, but oh man, Falcons. Your schedule can not get any sweeter. This is the updated list of starting quarterbacks Atlanta has faced this season (with the game result in parenthesis).

Sam Bradford (W)
Eli Manning (W)
Brandon Weeden (W)
Ryan Mallett (W)
Kirk Cousins (W)
Drew Brees (L)
Zach Mettenberger (W)
Jameis Winston (L)
Blaine Gabbert (L)
Matt Hasselbeck (Sunday)

Honestly, a 7-3 record is basically the worst-case scenario with a schedule like this.

c. Houston, with a win at home over the Jets, could finish Week 11 not only in a tie atop the AFC South, but also a tie for the second Wild-Card spot if the Bills lose in New England on Monday night. (Oh, those wasted Ryan Mallett starts.) The Jets, meanwhile, come in reeling. Their run defense, seemingly the most sure bet on this roster, has allowed 4.7 yards per carry the past three weeks (to Oakland, Jacksonville and Buffalo).

d. Hey look, it’s Mark Sanchez! Philly hosts the Bucs with Sanchez under center, and there’s no reason the Eagles can’t keep pace in the NFC East. Last year, they went 3-1 in Sanchez’s starts against teams that finished the year with a losing record.

e. Andy Benoit already summed up all that is Osweiler better than I possibly could, so I’ll look at the other side of the ball. The Bears were supposed to crumble without Matt Forte. Instead, they’ve gone on the road twice and put up 59 points in two wins. Jeremy Langford, a fourth-round rookie, has replaced Forte and put up 145 rushing yards, 179 receiving yards and scored three TDs in those two games. And Jay Cutler has a 111.8 passer rating in November, third-highest in the NFL this month.

f. Everyone is down on the Rams’ defense right now, but they’re without Chris Long, and Robert Quinn was severely limited due to a hip injury (he won’t play this week). It’s not calculus: There are few great edge rushers in this league, the Rams were excellent early on because they have two of those great edge rushers, now they have neither of them. And that is why they’ve given up 58 points the past two weeks. And it’s why the Ravens have a chance to steal one this week.

g. Hey look, it’s Tony Romo! The Cowboys have won 15 of their last 18 regular-season games with Romo starting under center. And they’ve lost nine in a row with someone besides Romo starting. (If you’re wondering, the last back-up quarterback to win in a start for Dallas: the immortal Stephen McGee, in the 2010 season finale at Philadelphia.) So anyway, seems like a crummy break for anyone getting the Cowboys with Romo back in the lineup, starting with Miami this week.

h. Kirk Cousins, I like the cut of your jib. But your home/road splits are terrifying, and you’ve lost your last eight road starts dating back to 2013:

HOME 4-1 75.7 266.0 7.87 10 2 112.8
AWAY 0-4 59.8 237.0 5.78 4 7 66.3


So, I guess what I’m saying is that I think you’re going to get hammered in Carolina on Sunday.

i. Also, Cam Newton, I’ll give you all the loose change in my car’s cup holder (it’s at least three bucks) if you do this:

j. The Chiefs are 4-5, one game out of the second Wild-Card spot, with seven winnable games left on the schedule. That starts with Sunday’s West coast swing to San Diego, where the Chargers likely spent the bye week trying to coax Charlie Joiner out of retirement considering their banged up receiving corps. If you were handicapping the AFC No. 2 Wild-Card race right now (which comes down to Buffalo, the Jets, Oakland, Houston and K.C.), you’d have to make the Chiefs the favorites. They’re the hottest of the five teams, four of their seven remaining game are at home, and one of those home games against Buffalo, presumably their No. 1 challenger.

k. So just how did the Chiefs, once 1-5 and given up for dead, and without their best player in Jamaal Charles, turn the season around? I managed to get my hands on a compilation of Andy Reid’s motivational speeches.

m. Apologies for the low-hanging fruit (plus a bit mean-spirited at that).

n. The healthy return of Davante Adams was supposed to be good news for the Packers, but he’s coming off as dreadful a game as you can play as a wide receiver. A week ago he was the easy choice as Rodgers’ No. 1 target, as the Lions were covering Adams with a combination of Nevin Lawson and Crezdon Butler. No offense to Lawson and Butler (and this is going to offend both of them), but when you’re a second-round pick, and Aaron Rodgers is your quarterback, that is taking candy from a baby. In case you missed it, Adams was targeted 21 times and registered 79 yards, an anemic 3.8 yards per target. And that doesn’t even factor in the feeble attempt on the potential game-tying two-point conversion.

The Packers visit Minnesota with first-place on the line on Sunday, and what that means is that Mike Zimmer and the Vikes D doesn’t need to devote any significant attention to Adams. Green Bay’s No. 2 receiver can be neutralized by one street free agent-caliber cornerback. That is a major issue for the Packers.

n. Blaine Gabbert certainly provides a tougher challenge for Seattle’s defense than Colin Kaepernick did one month ago, when the Niners played the game as if they were entirely unfamiliar with the concept of the forward pass. Still, if the Seahawks can’t this one going away…

o. The Cardinals are undoubtedly a great team. But they have a gauntlet to run over the final seven weeks, starting with the Bengals on Sunday night.

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10. I think, at 12:58 p.m. ET, you should turn your volume all the way up and press play


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