As we hit home stretch, suspense reigns in NFC playoff chase
Now we enter the cruel month of December with six NFC teams separated by one game fighting for the last playoff spot. (And if Green Bay doesn't wake up after that five-alarm fire of a loss Sunday night to the Giants, the Packers might give away the five seed.) In the AFC, we're going to sleep through the playoff race, because it looks like it'll be 7-4 Indianapolis, 6-5 Pittsburgh and 6-5 Cincinnati fighting for two spots, and the way things look now, none is a threat to the AFC elite.
But there is an interesting subplot in the AFC, which Ray Rice raised to me last night, before getting on a giddy Ravens charter to return home from the impossible 16-13 overtime win at San Diego.
"I don't know what kind of medicine the Steelers will put Ben Roethlisberger on this week,'' Rice said, "but they're going to give him something."
Pittsburgh-Baltimore, the rematch, Sunday at The Big Crabcake. (I think that's Chris Berman's invention, so I'll give him naming rights.) And does anyone think the Steelers stand a chance of winning in Baltimore without Roethlisberger, who missed his second game with a dislocated first rib (
Now for the NFC. It's bizarro world. Here's how I handicap the six-team race:
1. Washington (5-6). The 'Skins and Bucs are playing the best among the contenders, and if Washington can win one of the next two (Giants Monday, Ravens to follow), the last three weeks (at Cleveland, at Philly, Dallas) are manageable. How great would it be to see Robert Griffin III in a Wild Card game at Soldier Field, getting chased through the snow by Urlacher and Briggs?
2. Tampa Bay (6-5). Watching the Bucs the last month, I keep thinking no one wants to play them. Greg Schiano's instilled a toughness in them, and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan has obviously worked wonders with a rejuvenated Josh Freeman. The problem's the schedule. Bucs are at Denver, at New Orleans and at Atlanta in December. The only hope with that tough slate is maybe the Falcons have nothing to play for in Week 17, and Julio Jones and Matt Ryan sit.
3. Seattle (6-5). Seahawks have the tiebreaker right now, but that can disappear if Richard Sherman does. (See below.) Russell Wilson has been efficient in his rookie season. Now he'll need to be explosive, even more than in his last four weeks (nine touchdowns, one pick) to make up for what may be a yawning gap in the secondary.
4. New Orleans (5-6). The loss to San Francisco was logical, as well as disappointing. New Orleans now has to go 4-1, minimum, against a murderer's row slate (at Atlanta Thursday, at the Giants, Tampa Bay, at Dallas, Carolina) in the next month. All things are possible with Drew Brees, of course, but maybe not with a defense that just doesn't pressure the quarterback enough.
5. Minnesota (6-5). Can Adrian Peterson play quarterback? Green Bay twice, Houston on the road, and Chicago in the last month. I just don't see it.
6. Dallas (5-6). Schedule doesn't matter to me. The Cowboys haven't played well since September. Why start now?
So here's how I see the Wild Card round on the first weekend of January:
I repeat: Andrew Luck at Peyton Manning. The Irsay Bowl. I am reminded of a quote Bill Parcells uttered every other week in the four seasons I covered the Giants for
Now for the news of Week 12:
"This ... issue will be resolved soon and the truth will come out. Not worried,'' Sherman tweeted early this morning when the Seahawks landed at SeaTac. He should be. The likelihood is he'll eventually have to serve four games, and if it's not this year while the appeal plays out, it'll be next year, which would put Seattle in a major hole early in 2013. As it is now, pass defense has been a major reason why Seattle's the sixth NFC seed through 11 games. The best secondary in football has allowed just 59 percent completions and a 75.4 passer rating. What we don't know now is how long the appeals process will take, but since the news broke, the league isn't going to want it to linger. Seattle's December: at Chicago, Arizona, at Buffalo, San Francisco, St. Louis. Looks like 3-2 with Sherman, 2-3 without him to me.
Again: Did Rice know where to aim for -- namely the San Diego 34? "I saw the yard marker,'' Rice told me, "so I knew how far it was. I just knew somehow I had to get there. And when I took off, I saw them overpursuing me, so I cut to the left. I think I must have found another gear. And then I got that great block from Anquan [Boldin].'' Which looked like a classic crackback block that should have been penalized; Boldin blindsided Eric Weddle, who had to be removed from the game, just as Rice dove for the Chargers 34. He made it ... Or did he?
"There was a lot being said out there, but I didn't pay attention,'' said Rice, while the spot of the play was examined and re-examined and replayed. The more I looked, the more I thought Rice's knee didn't come down until the ball was at approximately the 34-yard line. If Gene Steratore and his officiating crew erred in the spot, it wasn't by more than a foot. No outrage to me. The play kept the game-tying drive alive, and the Ravens won 14 minutes into overtime. When I've been around the Ravens in the last couple of years, I've always gotten the impression that Ray Lewis was preparing to pass the mantel of team leadership to Rice. Lewis loves Rice, and this play shows why he does. A play that had no business getting made got made by Rice, and it could be the play that makes the difference between a first-round bye and a veteran team having to play a wild-card game. How incredible would it be for that extra week of rest allowing another week of healing for Lewis -- and enabling him to come back from his arm injury to take the field in mid-January, maybe for the final time?
Two things that impressed me: Kaepernick turned it over once, and led the Niners into scoring position five times (two touchdowns, three field goal chances) in 10 San Francisco possessions ... and he did all of that while running the offense in a silent snap count for all 56 offensive snaps. "It was difficult our first few drives because of the noise and the energy here, but then it was just football,'' Kaepernick told me after the game.
Impressive thing No. 2: Alex Smith was an ally, not a disgruntled employee, throughout the game. "It's got to be tough,'' said Kaepernick, "but Alex is so good to me. Our relationship is still the same as it's been. Every time I came off the field, he'd say to me, 'Did you see this?' Or, 'Did you see that?' Alex is a great guy.'' Apparently.
The hidden advantage in the choice Harbaugh made is that now he knows he can win with two quarterbacks. One more mobile with a stronger downfield arm, weapons Harbaugh had on display in the Dome; Kaepernick completed throws of 26, 40 and 45 yards. The other is as efficient and smart a player as a coach could hope for, in Smith. I mean, who has a backup quarterback leading the league in completion percentage, with a rating over 100? All over a deep roster, Harbaugh has almost an embarrassment of riches -- just two seasons after the 49ers were an embarrassment.
Reaction was swift. Two coaches with an offensive leaning told me they thought it'd be the death knell for running games as we know them, because so many teams teach pulling guards and backs to chop down defenders by diving and rolling at their feet; they also said smaller backs who have to blitz-protect would be at a disadvantage -- the diminutive Darren Sproles is a good blitz man, and chops down rushers much bigger than he -- against defensive ends and outside linebackers. But the defenders? They love it. "That'd be great,'' said Houston linebacker Connor Barwin. "It'd be the first thing this league has done to protect defensive players in years.''
Last season, Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson dove at Kansas City safety Eric Berry's knees, causing torn ligaments and Berry to be out for the year. On Sunday, Johnson told me: "That's cool. I'd be in favor of them making that rule. I stopped doing it anyway, because I didn't want to knock guys out for the year. That's not the kind of player I am, and this is a brotherhood. We don't want to be hurting each other.'' I don't think the league will get the votes to ban all blocks below the waist in 2013, but I do think downfield blocks away from the play, such as Johnson's on Berry, have a good chance to be banned.
Mike Holmgren told Kevin Harlan of FOX this weekend that Sunday was his last day with the Browns, an odd way to end one's club presidency. Sounds very much like Holmgren will return to his big digs in Seattle and hope he gets an offer to coach again. He's 64, two years younger than Tom Coughlin, and may want to erase the way things ended for him in Seattle, and in Cleveland. In Holmgren's last three coaching seasons in Seattle, he was 23-25. In his three seasons as Browns president, the team was 12-31 ... Six starters hurt for the Bears. A month ago, I thought the NFC North was the best division, top to bottom, in football. Now it's the War of Attrition Division ... Any doubt about the wisdom of Mike Brown playing hardball with Carson Palmer in 2011 got erased Sunday. The Bengals have the better quarterback for the long-term, to be sure, in Andy Dalton and building-block cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (from the first-round pick acquired from Oakland in 2012), not to mention a pick that appears to be around 35 or 37 in the upcoming draft, also from Oakland. "Hopefully everyone believes the Bengals did the right thing,'' Dalton told me after the Bengals' 34-10 rout of Oakland and Palmer. "I think they do. I think my teammates do. We went to the playoffs last year, and now we're playing complete games and should have a good chance to go back this year." More importantly: Palmer didn't want to be in Cincinnati. Dalton craved it, because it was a place that would give him a starting job from day one.
If the last six weeks of the 2012 season play out similarly to the first 10, the defensive story of the season could well be two sophomore defensive players: Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Broncos linebacker Von Miller. Their play has been so outstanding that the question might not be which deserves the Defensive Player of the Year award, but are either worthy of the MVP? I asked Neil Hornsby of ProFootballFocus.com to break down their play to try to answer those questions:
Kaepernick went out and played better than Drew Brees at the Superdome Sunday, and Harbaugh was proven correct, for the week, anyway. Harbaugh's brash, and rubs some people the wrong way. He's also the brightest star, by far, of all the young coaches in the game today. Who would have imagined, approaching the last month of the regular season of his second season in the league, that he'd have but five career regular season losses?
"Everybody is always doubting us because we give them reason to do that."
"This was his second career start? He's been playing like he's been in there forever."
"The runner's buttocks was down on the ground before the ball came loose. Therefore, it's Indianapolis ball at the 47-yard line. The clock should be reset to 13:22.''
And if you weren't watching, yes, announcer Marv Albert did chuckle when Hochuli said "buttocks."
"I know the rule: You can't challenge on a turnover or a scoring play, but I was so mad that I overreacted. I had the flag in my hand before he even scored because he was obviously down. It's my fault. I overreacted in that situation and cost us a touchdown.''
"He writes down everything. He writes down my Wednesday talks to the team, and then I'll hear it again with the media. I'll hear it again when he talks to his teammates, at the end of practice. It's off-the-chain leadership. He holds guys accountable, man. They don't want to let him down.''
Bill Belichick won his 200th game (regular season and postseason) Thursday night, in his 307th NFL game. As a means of comparison, let's measure Belichick versus the great Chuck Noll of the Steelers, who needed 347 games to reach win number 200 and who coached 366 games in all. Now we're getting some sense of where Belichick will rate in the pantheon, with his three Super Bowl wins and 65 percent winning percentage. Look at the numbers: He could match the great Noll in career victories in 50 fewer games. Comparing the two:
For two men so inextricably connected in Cincinnati Bengals history, it's notable that the first time Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton met was on the field at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday.
The extent of their conversation after the game went something like this, per Dalton:
Dalton: "Stay healthy."
Palmer: "You too. Good luck."
Not mine. Ian Eagle's. What the CBS football/YES Network basketball/Dial Global sports radio football announcer has done in the past week:
"At one point on the flight to San Diego Saturday,'' Eagle reported Sunday night, "I napped for about seven minutes and woke up and I thought I was flying to Buffalo to do a Bills game. Then again, I also thought at one point I was an orthodontist."
"Manning family has 750 combined @NFL TD passes. Peyton (425), Eli (200), Archie (125). #justwow''
"From Steve Kelley: 'It's going to be hard to tell when the crowd starts leaving.' "
"I HATE LOSING!"
a. The Washington offensive line, which I have criticized often. Great job enabling Robert Griffin III to make his magic. What a treat a rested Griffin and his mates will be against the Giants, at home, next Monday night.
b. Tom Brady, on pace for 35 touchdown passes and four interceptions. Is it possible he's getting better with age?
c. Adam Merchant, the 15-year-old Make-A-Wish kid who pumped up the Giants with a Friday speech to the team and then appeared in their locker room after that 38-10 rout of the Packers.
d. And the Giants, for making Merchant's appearance -- and his dreams -- come true.
e. Catch of the 1 o'clock Sunday games: Cleveland tight end Benjamin Watson's full-extension dive with Lawrence Timmons in coverage.
f. The NFL, for doling out approximately $187 million in retirement, health and pension benefits over the past 12 months to former players ... and for its 228 approved Parkinson's, ALS and dementia cases, to which $20.5 million has been given since the league's "88 Plan'' was kicked off five years ago. Much work remains to be done. Much work is being done.
g. Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner, for their pick-6s of Drew Brees. San Francisco's defense is the best in football, and those two unsung players are big reasons.
h. Jay Cutler. If we define "value'' in "Most Valuable Player'' as someone whose loss would totally deflate and screw up his team, then Cutler has to be in the running for the award.
i. Brandon Marshall, for his sixth straight season of 1,000 yards receiving.
k. Chuck Pagano, for touching so many Hoosiers. When he heard about Meadors' plan to shave her head during the Colts' game, he texted Meadors. "It was a pretty lengthy text,'' she said. "The gist of it was that he was thankful for all the support from me and the fans in Indianapolis. He said he came to Indianapolis hoping to build a team based on service and community. He was proud of the way everyone has responded and he wished me and my family a happy Thanksgiving."
l. Who wouldn't want to play for that guy?
m. Chad Henne, for leading a Jags win, their first at home this year. He'd have to royally mess up to not be the Jacksonville quarterback heading into the 2013 offseason.
n. Julio Jones, whose six catches for 147 yards and a vital touchdown for the 10-1 Falcons came on a bum ankle. Jones is making the 2011 megatrade by Thomas Dimitroff look better every week.
o. Knowshon Moreno, who came off the scout team with the injury to Willis McGahee to grind out 85 yards in Kansas City and help the Broncos overcome the stubborn Chiefs defense.
p. C.J. Spiller, 14 for 107. He's electric every week.
q. Indy's defense. In winning five of its last six, the D has allowed 13, 13, 20, 10 and 13 points in the five wins.
a. The Steeler running backs.
b. Rex Ryan's logic after the 49-19 loss to New England Thursday. He tells his coordinators he doesn't want them to play Tim Tebow, then says Tebow (two broken ribs) was "100 percent available." I'm not getting that. Wonder if Woody Johnson is.
c. Great Carson Palmer trade, Raiders. I like the headline I saw somewhere during the night about Bengals assistant Hue Jackson "taking the high road'' after the Bengals wiped out the team he head-coached last year, Oakland. What? Jackson got fired from the Raiders, in part because he overpaid (first- and second-round picks for Palmer) for a quarterback and went 4-6 after acquiring him. What high road exactly would he be taking?
d. Worst pass interference call I've seen in a while, on Antoine Winfield of the Vikings, saying he interfered with the clear interferer, Brandon Marshall, in the end zone at Chicago.
e. Wait! Even worse was Randy Moss yanking down Malcolm Jenkins in full view of the world in the end zone at New Orleans, and a blind official seeing nothing. Horrendous non-call.
f. Indy cornerback Darius Butler, for biting on the Stevie Johnson double-move, giving up a huge gainer.
g. Catch the easy interception, Asante Samuel. But I can't kill Samuel too much, because he played hurt down the stretch when his Falcons desperately needed him.
h. Josh Freeman's overthrow of a wide-open Mike Williams.
i. The Norv Turners, scoring three points in the last 59 minutes of another crushing loss.
j. The Packers, for whatever that was at the Meadowlands Sunday night.
Cooper stars in
Three points. First, Eisen's interview with Cooper would have gotten zero attention in this column and scant attention elsewhere had it aired, but banning it pushed it to the top of the
Second, Cooper is one of the biggest stars in America. Eisen's podcasts and specials get some big stars talking about how much they love the NFL. I'm sure Cooper talked about growing up loving the Eagles, and building the brand that Eisen is trying to build, of the NFL as a paragon of entertainment that people in show business and politics and power all love. Now see if Cooper wants to do anything with the NFL again.
Third, the NFL can't sanitize life. I would bet (oops; bad word choice) that a father or two of a prominent NFL player is an inveterate gambler, and puts down money on NFL games. I bet NFL players go to Vegas in the offseason and put a few bucks down on horses and games. It's America.
1. Chip Kelly, Oregon
I didn't include Bill O'Brien of Penn State because (and call me naïve) I can't see him preaching love of, and loyalty to, Penn State, and then leaving after 12 months. But never say never in this business.
1. Mike McCoy, Denver offensive coordinator
Isn't it logical to think that, among starters in the league, Ben Roethlisberger has a better-than-average chance of needing a replacement during the year? Maybe the long-term younger backup is Brian Hoyer, who the Steelers signed last week. But Steelers football czar Kevin Colbert needs to find someone so Pittsburgh won't have two old and/or slow backups.
a. So long, Larry Hagman. You were a fixture on Friday nights in the King family house -- and in millions of others -- as J.R. Ewing.
b. Controversial: Mike Florio says he was bored by
c. Black Friday. One of the lightest traffic days of the year, because I had to drive quite a bit Friday. Can't figure that one out.
d. Dope that I am, I never heard of "Cyber Monday" until Friday.
e. Congrats, Toronto Argonauts, for the Grey Cup win, the 100th Canadian Football League championship game. Argos 35, Stampeders 22. You can be sure Doug Flutie was there, and received a standing ovation. One of the fun things about working with Flutie at NBC these days is listening to his stories about the CFL.
f. Congrats, Notre Dame. Of all the crazy things you could have said 12 months ago, the craziest might have been this: Notre Dame will be universally ranked No. 1 in the country at the end of the 2012 regular season and will play Team X for the BCS National Championship. And it's not online yet (Wednesday it will be), but take time to read Tim Layden's SI magazine story about the rise of the Irish. Really a great history lesson.
g. I really want to see the Civil War in Oregon one day.
h. My Bobcats sank like stones, didn't they? Still think Nick Saban quakes at the thought of facing the mighty men of Solich.
i. Florence Norman has been born. One piece of advice, Flo: Don't listen to a word your grandfather says about rooting for the Yankees. It's the wrong thing to do.
j. Coffeenerdness: Daughter Mary Beth is visiting, and I'm proud to say I've got her on the espresso trail. Her drink of choice: a quad (four-shot) grande Americano. Chip off the old block, that girl.
k. Beernerdness: Thanks, Ommegang (Cooperstown, N.Y.) for making your White beer available throughout Manhattan. I don't like it as much as Allagash White, but any port in a storm when you're jonesing for some Belgian beer is a good thing.
l. So good to see Christie Werder, daughter of ESPN's Ed Werder, as such a good soldier battling brain cancer, and good of the
Siebert wrote an
He wrote of being in Schiller's apartment during this season and seeing the area where he kept his medicines. "I noticed that the dresser was topped with all manner of balms, unguents and painkilling medications: a 23-year-old with the medicine cabinet of a septuagenarian. Somehow, it was only then that I felt the full weight of what my nephew had managed to pull off: the ridiculous odds he overcame; all the excellent players he beat out. I suddenly felt more like one of his hometown acolytes than an uncle to a kid who grew up a thousand miles and, in terms of life experiences and career pursuits, a world away from me. A kid I only came to know at this juncture because he is so good at a game that I, like millions of others, so love to watch.
"'Dude,' he said, as I stood staring at his dresser. "I swear to God, if someone tells me right now there's some miracle body cream out there that would make me feel 100 percent and prevent me from getting hurt but that could also cause cancer or liver damage down the line, I'd use it in a heartbeat. I would."
You will fly through this story, I guarantee it. Siebert has made a great contribution to the football landscape. He's explained so well what so many marginal players, hundreds of them, go through every spring, summer and fall.
Regarding tonight's game, I have