The circle of life in the NFL playoffs always seems to come down to Week 17 and the Dallas Cowboys, and the Sunday night prime time game on NBC, game 256 of the season.
“We probably should just circle that date on our calendars every year,’’ Dallas tight end Jason Witten said Thursday afternoon from Texas after the Cowboys’ penultimate practice for yet another pre-postseason playoff game. “It’s pretty weird. What are the chances of this happening?”
For the third straight year, on the same final weekend of the NFL season, Dallas (8-7) plays a win-and-you’re-in/lose-and-you’re-out game against a different NFC East team to close out the league’s regular season. The omens are not good. Two years ago, in New Jersey, Dallas lost on New Year’s to the Giants 31-14; New York won the division. Last year, at Washington, Tony Romo threw three interceptions in a 28-18 loss; Washington won the division. This year, the good news is Dallas will be playing at home. Two pieces of bad news: Quarterback Tony Romo is unlikely to play with his back injury, and the Eagles come to town with a 6-1 record since Nov. 1. They beat Chicago 54-11 last week in one of the season’s most one-sided beatdowns.
Not the best environment for Kyle Orton to make his Dallas starting debut. Two years ago this weekend, Orton started his last game for the woebegone Chiefs. K.C. beat Denver 7-3 in a game where Tim Tebow went 6 of 22 in his last regular-season start as a Bronco.
It is my veteran scribe best guess that Kyle Orton will need to put up more than seven points to win Sunday night.
That is, of course, assuming Romo doesn’t make a miracle return from a herniated disk, which ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Romo had Monday afternoon and owner Jerry Jones refuted Monday night. But it’s probably no more than a 5 percent chance that Romo somehow takes the field Sunday night in Arlington. He has missed both days of practice this week, and the players have gotten no indication he’ll be out there today for the final day of full-period work for Sunday. “I would never count him out,’’ said Witten, one of Romo's best friends. “But I don’t know enough about the situation either way to say.”
In my conversation with Witten, I thought the most revealing thing he said was a simple sentence about game philosophy: “We have to keep the Eagles’ offense off the field.’’ I found myself thinking: He’s not saying that about this game if his quarterback’s out there—especially after Romo led them to 31, 28, 36 and 24 points the past four weeks. With Romo on the field, and playing at home, the Cowboys would be confident they could win a scoring contest with the potent Eagles. But that, of course, is just spitballing. My guess is Witten and the rest of the team figure Romo’s out, and they’ve got to make do with Orton.
Orton played a garbage-time series against the Bears in Week 14, completing 3-of-5 passes on a scoring drive. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Before I get to Orton, a word about Romo first. Witten said he saw Romo very uncomfortable in the huddle near the end of the game, and just as uncomfortable after the game on the bus and on the plane home from Washington. "To finish the game the way he did, to put the team on his back on that last drive and find a way to move around enough and get that touchdown to DeMarco [Murray], he would not be denied,’’ Witten said. "I could tell he was hurting on the throw to DeMarco. Imagine doing what he did with his back hurt. Of the guys I’ve played with, Tony’s the ultimate competitor. The will he has is incredible.”
“The best thing in a situation like we’re facing is to have a quarterback like Kyle, who’s been there before, who’s started a lot of games in this league,’’ Witten continued. “Guys will rally behind Kyle. They already have. I just told him, ‘Just communicate with us. Whatever we can do to help out, just communicate.’ We’ve had very good energy at practice. I can tell you, we’re not down at all. We like Kyle a lot. It’s been a crazy season for us. So many times in my career, I’d have given anything to be in this situation—win your last game and you’re in the playoffs.”
I remember in the spring of 2010, when Tebow had just been drafted by the Broncos and Orton was the incumbent. I wrote a story for Sports Illustrated on the installation of the Denver offense, and on Tebow’s adjustment to pro football, and I sat in on a meeting run by offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. I remember well Orton sitting on one side of a table, processing the new scheme and learning the new plays, and spitting everything back at McCoy like he knew the foreign language and the other quarterbacks in the room were struggling with it. Orton was doing calculus, the other guys algebra. You could tell who the veteran in the room was. “He’s a professional quarterback, which is what we like about him,’’ Witten said, and I knew exactly what he meant.
The big thing for Dallas receivers will be getting used to Orton’s throws—how he leads them, the velocity on the balls, who he prefers on certain routes versus different coverages. That’ll be a mystery until game time. But it stands to reason Witten and Murray will be vital players in Dallas’ keep-the-chains-moving offense Sunday night. But it’ll be a shame, obviously, and probably a game-killer for Dallas if Orton can’t find Dez Bryant two or three times down the field.
For Philadelphia, the loss of Romo would be huge. Romo can escape a ferocious rush; Orton is not quick in the pocket. A very tough task—as tough as either of the last two finales—got a lot tougher when Romo lunged to avoid a sack in Washington on Sunday. And unless Orton plays a mistake-free game and Witten and Murray help him play keepaway from Nick Foles, the third time won’t be much different than the first two.
Julius Peppers and the Bears have a simple scenario Sunday: beat the Packers and go to the playoffs; lose and Chicago's season is over. (David Banks/Getty Images)
Player You Need to Watch This Weekend
Julius Peppers, defensive end, Chicago (number 90). So Aaron Rodgers is coming back Sunday, in the NFC North championship game at Soldier Field. And just who is going to be there to stop him from putting up 30 points or so, even as rusty as he certainly will be? That is the question the Bears better be ready to answer. Get this: According to Pro Football Focus, the Bears’ top five outside rushers (in terms of number of snaps played) have combined for 41 sacks and quarterback hits in 2,710 combined defensive snaps. Meanwhile, St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn has 38 sacks and hits in 798 defensive plays. So the Bears, in three-and-a-half times the snaps of Quinn, has essentially the same amount of disruption to the quarterback as the lone Ram. That’s depressing for Bears fans—and we’ll let Peppers represent the five-man group of defensive ends and outside ‘backers.
Sound Bite of the Week
“We’re down to our fifth running back, our third tight end. So yes, I’m worried about it.”
—Interim Houston coach Wade Phillips on Thursday, asked if he was worried about the depth on his roster entering the final game of the season Sunday at Tennessee. Someone named Jonathan Grimes will start at running back for the Texans. He is one of three former practice-squad running backs who will make up the depth chart at the position for Houston on Sunday.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
Aaron Rodgers hasn't played in a game since breaking his collarbone against the Bears in Week 9. (Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
1. Aaron Rodgers returneth. Will he see ghosts? Hear footsteps? Be over-protective of his left collarbone? I doubt it—all of it. But the Bears’ best shot in the NFC North title game Sunday at Soldier Field will be to rattle Rodgers around early. Which leads me to …
2. Mel Tucker’s plan. You saw the ugly stats up above. Shea McClellin, Julius Peppers, James Anderson, Corey Wootton and Lance Briggs can't get much pressure on the quarterback: combined, just 2.8 sacks plus quarterback hits per game between the five men. Tucker, the defensive coordinator, might have a future NFL head-coaching interview riding on what he can whip up to harass Rodgers.
3. The AFC’s sixth seed. I told you the other day how five teams could tie at 8-8 for the sixth seed—Pittsburgh, San Diego, Baltimore, the Jets and Miami. Wouldn’t that be fun? Not for anyone but the Steelers, who would complete the incredible comeback from 2-6 to the playoffs in those circumstances.
4. The NFC South title. If Carolina wins at pesky Atlanta, the Panthers win the division and finish the season 11-1 in their last 12. And the Saints would have to win four games away from Dome Sweet Dome to win the second Super Bowl of the Payton Era.
5. Elite 18. Eighteen teams enter Sunday mathematically alive for the playoffs. That’s a lot.
6. The most offensive season ever. And I mean that in a good way. The 1948 season saw the highest average scoring in a season to this point: 46.48 points per game. This year, teams are scoring 0.7 points more—47.18 per game, combined, on average.
7. The Record Book Eraser. Peyton Manning has thrown for more than 266 yards in a game 14 out of 15 times this season. If he does it Sunday at Oakland, he’ll break Drew Brees' record for passing yards in a season. Here’s some nice symmetry: If he throws four touchdown passes and throws for 344 yards Sunday, he’ll finish the season with 55 touchdowns and 5,555 yards.
Tony Gonzalez: Unplugged
Tony Gonzalez reflects on his impending retirement, regrets, chasing Jerry Rice and having more left in his tank. FULL STORY
8. Tony Gonzalez: The end.
Imagine playing 17 years, getting beat up by linebackers and safeties when he doesn’t see the punishment coming half the time, playing until you’re 37, and knowing you could come back next year at 38 and catch 80 or 90 balls. Gonzalez the athlete and ballplayer is tremendous. Gonzalez the physical freak and workout wonder might be even better.
9. London Fletcher: The end. He might have eclipsed Sam Mills as the best small linebacker of the past quarter-century. He plays his 246th and final game Sunday at the Giants, leaving the game as one of the best leaders and most consistent play-makers of this century. Fletcher played four season for St. Louis, five for Buffalo and seven for Washington. This week’s sign of the silliness of Pro Bowl voting: Fletcher didn’t make one until he was 34. A shame.
10. Rex’s final audition. Jets at Miami Sunday. If Ryan gets this team to 8-8, he shouldn’t accept a contract extension. President Obama should hire him to run Healthcare.gov. The country needs a miracle worker.