• The Raiders playing a game that matters.
• The Bucs, with a half-game lead on the Saints, playing for the NFC South lead.
One of the great things we've seen in the first half of this season is the maturation of a 22-year-old quarterback, Josh Freeman, before our very eyes. Consider that Freeman has led the Buccaneers to three fourth-quarter comebacks on the road in the last four weeks -- against Cincinnati, St. Louis and Arizona. Not exactly murderer's row. But three wins, two in the final minutes, in hostile environments is a heck of an accomplishment for a young kid in the NFL.
"Our offense has a calm confidence,'' he told me Thursday. "We're not shaken up when we're down late. Last week in Arizona, we went out there [trailing 35-31 late] just knowing, 'We've got a job to do.' No big speeches. It's just succeeding at situational football. If we do it every day at practice, why can't we do it on Sunday?''
On Sunday in Atlanta, Freeman's big task will be identifying the stunting, moving Falcons front. Atlanta defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder likes to throw changeups at quarterbacks, and Freeman can expect ends John Abraham and Kroy Biermann to stunt and sprint from different rush points much of the day.
Tampa Bay is 5-2, and geniuses like me are still skeptical, because the two good foes the Bucs have played, Pittsburgh and New Orleans, have beaten them by 25 points apiece. I asked Freeman what he'd say to those who don't yet buy the Bucs.
"People don't have to buy it,'' he said. "We couldn't care less. Our coach believes in us, and we believe in us. What anyone thinks outside this building ... who cares?''
We'll all be closer to believers with a win Sunday at 5-2 Atlanta.
With all respect to Bucs-Falcons, Oakland-Kansas City is the game of the week. That's something else that's hard to fathom, especially for the Raiders players who've never seen what it's like to play a big game in November.
"A couple TV people came around this week, and I saw 'em, and I said, 'Hey, I've seen them on TV.' But they've never been here before,'' defensive Tommy Kelly told me, laughing. "You know how it's been for us. We go home and watch the shows Sunday night, and our game always get one highlight.''
Pretty big game, Tommy.
"Biggest I've played here in seven years,'' he said. "No doubt about it. There's a lot riding on this one.''
Relevancy in the AFC pennant race, for one thing. The Chiefs looked like they might run away with the division until 12 days ago. That's when the Raiders began a two-game run that made them look like the '70s Steelers. (Shhhhhh. Don't mention the '70s Steelers around the Raiders.) Let's make that the '70s Raiders. Kelly's playing like Otis Sistrunk and linemate Richard Seymour like John Matuszak, making the formerly one-sided trade with New England look better for the Raiders. Oakland destroyed Denver 59-14 and Seattle 33-3. For the first time in their 51-season history, Oakland rolled up two straight 500-yard offensive games. Never have the Raiders won two straight by a margin of 75 points or more.
Oakland (4-4) can climb to within a half-game of the Chiefs (5-2) with a win. But these aren't papier mache Chiefs. Other than a freaky 35-31 loss to Houston, the Kansas City defense hasn't allowed more than 20 points on any Sunday. The Chiefs have allowed 30 points in the past nine quarters (they played five to beat Buffalo last week) and come into this game with the kind of respectable run defense they'll need to create long-yardage situations for Jason Campbell. Last year, Kansas City allowed 4.7 yards per rush; this year it's 3.8. But last week, Oakland riddled Seattle's at-the-time second-rated run defense, Darren McFadden rushing for 111 yards on 21 carries. So it's on this week.
You'd think the Raiders would be susceptible to the run, with their generous 4.7-yards per rush defensive average. Maybe not. In the past two weeks, they've held the Broncos and Seahawks to 122 rushing yards on 36 carries. "Our attitude is, 'You cannot run the ball on us right now,'' defensive end Trevor Scott said last night.
The Raiders have the look of marauders right now. Some of that has to be that Denver and Seattle aren't very good. But defensively, Oakland looks like it's playing 14-on-11 football. Against Seattle, here were the Seahawks' first five offensive plays: sack, rush for one yard, sack, run for minus-two, run for minus-four. The Seahawks didn't have a first down for the first 27 minutes.
"I really think the difference is we've been executing in the run game, and we've been able to force teams into some long-yardage situations,'' Kelly said. "As our coaches say, you earn the right to rush the passer in this league, and we've done that by playing the run better.''
Kelly said he sees Al Davis, who has been ill, most afternoons, and he watches the tape of practice and "is up on everything.'' I told Kelly that I can imagine what it's been like around the facility for the past few years, with Davis agonizing over the poor play of the Raiders, who haven't won more than five games since 2002. I told him I've gotten a few withering looks from Davis at league meetings for things I've written or said, and he laughed.
"You ain't the only one who's gotten those looks,'' Kelly said. laughing. "I've felt that -- lots of times.''
On Sunday, Kelly and his mates have the chance to make the boss very happy. It'll be a fun day in the Black Hole, and not just because the costumes will be vintage.
Charlie Whitehurst, QB, Seattle.
Whitehurst has been in the league for 71 regular-season games, 64 with San Diego and seven with Seattle. And he's never thrown a pass. With the voracious Giants' front coming to town Sunday, you can bet defensive coordinator Perry Fewell will bring the heat and try to pressure Whitehurst into mistakes.
The Seahawks traded quite a bit to get Whitehurst -- a third-round pick in 2011, plus moving down 20 spots in the 2010 second round -- and he was underwhelming in training camp. With Matt Hasselbeck out for at least this week with a concussion, the onus is on Whitehurst to move the chains against a hot, and rested, Giants defense.
Trevor Scott, DE, Oakland (No. 91).
The former sixth-round pick from the University of Buffalo has played both end and outside linebacker and was a huge surprise on a bad team last year, recording seven sacks. The Raiders are using him in a rotation with Matt Shaughnessy and Lamarr Houston outside on the defensive line, leaving the bulk of the run-stopping work to Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly and John Henderson inside. Scott's an undersized, hard-trying guy, and his motor is one of the reasons the Raiders have been able to attack so successfully and put the Broncos and Seahawks in early holes the past two weeks.
Buffalo wide receiver Steve Johnson's line against Chicago:
Then again, this may not surprise you. Over the last month, he's been one of the top 10 receiver targets in football.
1. The pregame show battle over Randy Moss news. I doubt there's much left. But top beat men Chip Scoggins and Judd Zulgad of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune had a great nugget this morning, laying down the gauntlet for the weekend, reporting that after the Vikings' 28-18 loss to the Patriots Sunday, Moss walked into the locker room "and told the Vikings owner in no uncertain terms that Childress wasn't a good coach and should be fired.'' Ouch. What a team guy!
2. The guts of DeSean Jackson. How can the Eagles receiver/returner go out there against the Colts on Sunday with the same devil-may-care attitude he's always played with after his alarming concussion of Oçt. 17? We'll see how he comes out late Sunday afternoon at the Linc.
3. The ankle and heel of Antonio Gates. At some point, Philip Rivers is going to run out of people to throw it to. He's got three wideouts hurt, and now, entering Sunday's quasi-must-win game against Houston, Gates is very iffy (many would like to see him skip Sunday's game and then, with the bye week, have 21 days to heal up for the stretch run) with a torn plantar fascitis and sprained ankle. Too soon to tell which way Norv Turner's leaning, but my gut feeling is Gates will sit Sunday, and Rivers will have to rely on Kris Wilson and Randy McMichael at tight end.
4. The legs of Clay Matthews. He hasn't practiced all week because of his sore hammy, a bruised shin and strained calf. But Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy says he'll play Sunday night against Dallas.
5. The crazy Drew Brees story. According to New Orleans radio reporter Kenny Wilkerson, Brees has a torn meniscus and fracture in his knee; Wilkerson said he was "100 thousand trillion million'' percent certain. Funny, though, that the disabled Brees was running around at practice Thursday with neither a brace nor any wrapping on the alleged wounded knee, and before practice, he was fooling around, kicking drop-kicks through the crossbar.' After practice, Brees told ace beat man Mike Triplett of the Times-Picayune: "I'm a hundred million billion trillion percent sure it would hurt if I tried to drop-kick a football with a broken knee."
6. Ndamukong Suh vs. a pretty darned good Jets offensive line. He'll be across from one of my midseason all-pro guards, Brandon Moore, for more than a bit Sunday, and I expect that not to stop Suh. He's one of the most impressive rookies to come along in years, and one of the prime reasons this certainly will not be a mail-it-in game for a struggling offense -- New York's.
7. White vs. Talib.Matt Ryan has targeted Roddy White more than any receiver has been targeted in football this year -- 12 times a game. Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib has often drawn the tough assignment for Tampa in the passing game, and he has five of the Bucs' league-high 14 interceptions. Let's see how much Ryan challenges him Sunday in the surprising NFC South battle for first place.
8. Road Sweet Road. The Bears were supposed to go on a run when, at 4-1, they returned home for a two-game stand against two teams they were favored to beat, Seattle and Washington. They lost by three to both. Now Chicago tries to remedy that by leaving the country. The Bears probably should be thrilled I'm picking the Bills to win Sunday's International Bowl in Toronto, given my stellar record of picks this year.
9. The fine mess.Ernie Sims of the Eagles got fined $50,000 for a hit on Tennessee's Lavelle Hawkins. James Harrison got another $20,000 for a blind-side hit on Drew Brees, putting him up in Rodney Harrison-fine territory. The NFL's not letting up, fellas. Better get used to the big whacks.
10. Bill Belichick returns to Cleveland. I'm sure he'll get a nice, warm reception. Just like the postgame handshake with the opposing coach.