Now that we’ve locked up a bye week for the first week of the playoffs, the Morning Aftermath will be resting its starters for the balance of the regular season.
But since I’ve yet to convince Rosenthal and/or MDS to play the role of Curtis Painter and/or Drew Willy, I’ve got to take all the snaps. So I’ll get my rest by mailing it in.
I just hope I can avoid an injury.
1. Colts’ plan to rest starters begins and ends with Polian.
Throughout the past week, we’ve suggested that the Colts’ intention to rest starters upon securing home-field advantage for the playoffs is the result of a strategic decision made when the team first faced the issue of meaningless regular-season games, and that the team now refuses to revisit the wisdom of that decision, opting instead to zealously defend it.
Based on team president Bill Polian’s comments during NBC’s Football Night In America and the follow-up observations from former Colts coach Tony Dungy, it’s now obvious that Polian reached this strategic decision long before arriving in Indianapolis.
As Dungy pointed out, Polian applied the approach during his time in Buffalo, which resulted in four straight Super Bowl appearances.
But times change, and circumstances will at times counsel in favor of a different approach.
Over the past four years (some of you should be able to recite this by now), AFC teams that earned a bye are 3-5 in the divisional round. And the Colts (say it with me) have been involved in three of those games, and the team that secured the bye lost each of them.
This year, Indianapolis will be hosting one of four teams in the divisional round. With the Chargers on track to nail down the other AFC bye, the Colts can expect to punctuate their extended period of rest with a game against the likes of the Bengals, Broncos, Jaguars (who played the Colts tough in Indy), Dolphins (who played the Colts tough in Miami), or, yes, the Patriots (who played the Colts tough in Indy). And whoever it is will have become battle tested via a playoff game while the Colts had their toes up, Adalius Thomas style.
Still, Polian is resolute. The goal is to “get players who are playing hurt as healthy as they can be for the playoffs,” Polian told Dan Patrick of FNIA. (Polian might have been more convincing if he had been able to maintain eye contact with the camera for more than 0.076 seconds at a time. Maybe he was simply on the lookout for possible assassins.)
“That’s our number one priority,” Polian added. “Be healthy in January when the money’s on the line.”
The number one priority, however, should be to have more points that the other team. And recent history tells us that taking it easy while future opponents are still going hard after wins could keep that from happening when the team that took it easy faces a team that keep pushing.
Rodney Harrison of FNIA at one point seemed inclined to agree with that concept, pointing out that “you feel like you lose that mental and physical edge if you don’t play.” But he ultimately deferred to Dungy, reasoning that the Colts aren’t built to continue to take a weekly pounding, especially in light of the fact that the team has a small-but-fast defense.
Another potentially legitimate concern when it comes to getting and staying healthy is depth, or more accurately the lack of it. With so many players being paid big money (Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Dwight Freeney, Bob Sanders), there’s less money available for second stringers. So as many starters as possible need to be healthy.
Still, we don’t think it means that the Colts should assume a preseason posture at a time when other teams are necessarily reaching postseason form via their efforts to qualify for a berth in the tournament.
And that leads to an important point that Patrick made to Polian, asking whether the Colts owe it to the teams who are pursuing playoff berths to bring something more than their C-plus game against the likes of the Jaguars on Thursday night and the Jets ten days later. (The 2007 Browns likely are still thinking, “Hell yes they do.”)
Said a slightly-testier-than-usual Polian, “We earned the right to be where we are now. We did it the old-fashioned way. We earned it. And that’s all we owe anyone.”
Actually, the Colts owe it to themselves to be in position to win when the games count. And we’re not sure that this is the best way to lay the foundation for a mid-January win, especially since the Colts will now be under even more pressure to hold serve at home after essentially taking a month off with pay.
For more takes on Sunday’s game, including a skewering of Brandon Marshall, a look at whether the Saints are on the same page, Norv Turner’s contractual status, the looming Packer invasion in Pittsburgh, the Cowboys’ one-game season, our take on the Randy Moss mess, the AFC wild-card morass, a call for change in Tampa, and a farewell to Bill Sheridan’s NFL career, click the link below.
2. Brandon Marshall still has a long way to go.
The Brandon Marshall act-mature-so-I-can-get-paid tour hit a bump in the road Sunday, after he hauled in an NFL-record 21 receptions in Denver’s loss to the Colts.
Key word: loss.
“Whenever you accomplish something like that,” Marshall said after the game, “it definitely feels good.”
So it feels good to lose? To fall two games behind the Chargers with three to play in the race for the AFC West crown? To allow a clusterfudge of seven wild-card teams to gather at your gate?
Marshall at least gets partial credit for trying to act like he was troubled by the fact that his effort didn’t deliver the most important prize in team sports — a victory.
“[A]t the end of the day we have a goal, and our ultimate goal is to win games,” Marshall said. “I’d definitely trade in a couple of those catches for a win, anytime. So, yes, bittersweet.”
He’d trade “couple of those catches” for a win? How about trading all of them for a win? How about offering to convert his stat line into six drops, three balls clanging off his facemask, and one slip-and-fall on a McDonald’s bag if 8-5 would instead be 9-4?
We realize that the position of receiver attracts and/or breeds self-centered athletes who care more about their own stats than team objectives. But when Marshall is trying to persuade the Broncos and/or other potential suitors that he gets it, moments like this tell us that he instead has realized that he needs to pretend that he gets it, until he gets his money.
3. Saints need to get on the same page.
Before Sunday night, it was believed that, while the Colts would be putting their trip to the postseason on cruise control while they work on their laptops (what could go wrong?), the Saints would keep pushing for 16-0.
Michael Irvin’s argument that he would give up three Super Bowl rings and a Hall of Fame bust for a single 19-0 season might have caused some of the players to feel even more strongly about the quest for perfection.
But not all of them.
Linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the leader of the team’s much-improved defense, doesn’t care about winning each of the next three games, if it keeps them from winning each of the next three.
“To us, the world championship is a lot more important than 16-0,” Vilma told Peter King of NBC. Vilma also suggested that the stress of winning each week ultimately kept the Patriots from achieving that goal.
Others (including former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison) have suggested that the pressure of continuously winning ultimately caught up to the Patriots when it mattered most — in the Super Bowl.
But did the Pats fail to turn 18-0 into 19-0 because of the stress and strain that arose more than a month earlier, during the push to the first perfect sixteen-game season? They handled the Jaguars in the divisional round by double digits, and the AFC title game against San Diego was never really in doubt.
We tend to think that the ankle injury suffered by Tom Brady against the Chargers had a lot more to do with the loss in the Super Bowl, especially since the Giants had the manpower up front to continuously pressure the Patriots’ quarterback. Throw in one of the flukiest (but most compelling) plays in league history, and the underdogs were able to eke out a three-point win.
Still, there definitely will be added pressure during every postseason game if a loss would be the first loss the Saints suffer this season. That said, the quest for 16-0 won’t necessarily leave them in worse position to win the Super Bowl.
Unless Drew Brees injures an ankle.
Regardless, the Saints players need to be on the same page. Either 16-0 is a team goal, or it isn’t. Otherwise, any adversity they might encounter in the postseason could cause finger pointing regarding the impact of the pursuit (or non-pursuit) of perfection on their predicament.
4. Chargers should lock Turner up now.
We pointed out last week that the Chargers were facing a dilemma regarding coach Norv Turner, whose contract expires after the 2010 season. Extend the deal too early, and the Chargers could regret it later. Wait too long, and his price tag could go up dramatically.
Ultimately, we suggested that the Chargers should see whether Turner can beat the Cowboys in Dallas.
Now that he has, a report has emerged that the Chargers will extend his contract after the regular season ends.
But why wait? Not long after the regular season ends, someone will be driving the coaching wage scale into new heights, giving deals worth $10 millon or more per year to Bill Cowher and/or Mike Shanahan. With Brad Childress already pushing the going rate for coaches who haven’t won a playoff game into the range of $5 million, Norv could be looking at $7 million or $8 million per year.
So if the decision to wait until the end of the regular season is the result of a hard and fast rule that the Chargers don’t extend coaching contracts during the regular season, the Chargers would be wise to make an exception to this rule and get the deal thing done long before the market reaches new heights.
5. Black and yellow? Meet green and yellow.
Over the past several years, teams hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers have experienced a rare dynamic.
The good news? The stands are always full.
The bad news? There are a lot of yellow propellers.
This week, there might be a little karma unfolding at Heinz Field. As one member of the organization told us over the weekend, “Steelers fans are going to find out how it feels to have Steelers fans invade your home stadium.”
Next Sunday, the Packers come to town. Whether the cheeseheads are making the trek from Wisconsin or other locations, they’ll gladly be buying the tickets that Steelers fans gladly will be selling. (And the folks at StubHub gladly will be taking their cut.)
But Steelers fans might want to think twice about throwing in the Terrible Towel. The home team is still alive for a return to the postseason, and that five-game losing streak needs to end at some point.
It has to.
6. Cowboys’ season comes down to one game.
Two years ago, the New York Giants found the confidence to conquer the NFL, via a meaningless game.
Before hosting the Patriots for a Week 17 affair that meant nothing to neither team, the Giants were believed to be headed for a one-and-done postseason exit. They had nailed down the fifth seed, guaranteeing that they’d be hitting the road for a playoff game — and very likely hitting the road from the playoffs when it ended.
But instead of treating the last piece in the Pats’ 16-0 puzzle as a preseason game (are you paying attention, Bill Polian?), the Giants went for the win — and nearly got it.
Five weeks later, the Giants scored a three-point victory over the same team in a slightly more meaningful game.
The Cowboys could muster similar confidence at the Superdome on Saturday, since they’d likely end up back there again at some point in January, if the Cowboys make it to the playoffs and, for the first time since December 28, 1996, win at least one game.
If the Cowboys stumble badly against the Saints, who quietly have beaten Dallas five straight times, a “why bother?” vibe could invade the current “here we go again” thing and grease the skids for a “five straight losses to end the season” reality.
But if the Cowboys can suck it up and stick it to the Saints, the ‘Boys will be able to puff up their chests and push for the postseason, knowing that they can play in January with the best teams the NFC has to offer.
A loss at home in a high-profile game against one of the few winning teams on a largely soft schedule could also inject plenty of doubt into the mindset of a team that currently regards itself as invincible.
7. We think Moss wants to be in Minnesota.
In less than a week, Patriots receiver Randy Moss has been exposed as a malcontent who by all appearances is no longer interested in giving his all to help his team win.
Excuse me while I check the calendar — it all of a sudden feels like 2006 again. Or maybe it’s 2004. Or perhaps it’s December 2001, when he first uttered the phrase, “I play when I wanna play.”
But we can’t blame Moss for acting in a manner consistent with his makeup. He’s a supremely gifted athlete, with the attention span of a nine-year-old.
And when his attention strays, he can’t — or won’t — flip the switch.
So now Patriots fans are waking up to the warning that Mike Freeman sounded back in September, when he noticed not much “wanna play” in Randy during a Week Three game against the Falcons.
At the time, Freeman was villified for suggesting that Moss might be retreating to his true nature. And we took a lot of flak as well for daring to suggest that Moss’ eyes might have strayed back to Minnesota, where something special is happening for the first time since his first season there.
The events of the last five days have convinced us that Moss wants out of New England. The next question is whether he has his next destination in mind.
After the 2007 season, when he became a free agent and no one broke the bank for him, Moss accepted a three-year, $27 million deal to stay with the Patriots. The Eagles were the only other team seriously pursuing him, but they’ve since added DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin via the draft.
Even though Vikings coach Brad Childress (who surely bears a few scars on his soul based on a couple of seasons with T.O.) probably wouldn’t want Moss, quarterback Brett Favre could persuade “Chilly” to chillax on this one, and to trust Brett to be able to push the buttons necessary to get — and to keep — Randy’s head in the game.
Indeed, it would be another chapter in Favre’s “stick it to Ted Thompson” trophy case; Favre reportedly lobbied Thompson aggressively to trade for Moss in 2007, but Thompson refused to do it.
Sure, Moss eventually would once again become a pain in the butt. But for one year, if the team is winning and if he’s getting the ball and if he’s genuinely beloved (as he surely would be if he comes back to the Twin Cities), it could work.
And he knows it could work.
And that could be one of the reasons why it’s currently not working for him in New England.
8. Losses by Broncos, Jags open up AFC wild-card field.
In a season of “haves” and “have nots,” the AFC now features a cluster of “have somes.”
With Denver falling to 8-5 and Jacksonville landing at 7-6 on Sunday, there are two wild-card berths firmly in play — and four times that many teams in realistic position to snatch one of them.
Denver currently leads the way, followed by a cluster of four 7-6 teams (Jaguars, Dolphins, Jets, and Ravens), and a trio of 6-7 squads (Steelers, Titans, Texans).
With the Broncos looking at visits from the Raiders and Chiefs wrapped around Brian Dawkins’ return to Philly, 10-6 is looking like a fairly sure thing. For the rest of the bunch, it’s anyone’s guess as to how it will shake out.
The schedule features four likely elimination games among the seven teams, with Miami visiting Tennessee on Sunday, Texans-Dolphins and Ravens-Steelers the following weekend, and Dolphins-Steelers in Week 17.
In the end, however, we expect to eventually get a full refresher on all of the applicable tiebreakers, and specific details regarding the manner in which various permutations will extend and/or extinguish a team’s season. For the next two weeks, however, the franchise whose playoff hopes are still flickering should worry about winning, especially since all of them have through 13 games either won only once more than they’ve lost, or vice-versa.
9. Bucs need to pull the plug on Raheem Morris.
Despite a couple of decades of humiliation, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers currently are on track to have their worst season since entering the league winless in 1976. And since the NFL played only 14 games in 1976, the Bucs could be setting a single-season franchise record for futility, if they lose to the Seahawks, Saints, and Falcons.
So why isn’t first-year coach Raheem Morris on the hot seat?
Though some members of the local media are rousing rabble, Morris has escaped (for now) the unblinking red eye of the national press, due largely to the perception that the Glazers are less concerned about winning football games than they are about saving money.
At some point, though, Morris must be accountable. He hired offensive and defensive coordinators that he already has thrown overboard — a sure sign of dysfunction, poor judgment, and/or disloyalty. Besides, the team stinks. With each passing week, Packers coach Mike McCarthy should actually be on the hot seat for actually losing to this team.
But if the Glazers are inclined to keep Morris around simply because they don’t want to finance another buyout, they should simply reassign him to defensive coordinator, and hire someone who’s truly ready to be a head coach.
Morris wasn’t, and the folks in Tampa need to demand that the absentee landlords running the franchise do something to rectify the situation.
10. Nice knowing you, Bill Sheridan.
Giants defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan, 50, spent twenty seasons with a smattering of college programs before landing in the NFL four years ago.
After this year, Sheridan likely will be heading back to the NCAA level.
Sheridan has been a Ray Handley-style disaster in his first season as defensive coordinator of the Giants. Though injuries surely have played a role, someone’s head has to roll for Sunday night’s effort, which resulted in 45 points being surrendered to an Eagles team that scored nine against the Raiders.
In the end, 38 points and 512 yards of offense from Kevin Gilbride and company — usually more than enough to win an NFC East game — were wasted, and now the Giants are two games and a tiebreaker behind the Eagles for the division lead.
But it wasn’t New York’s first defensive collapse of the year. Sure, they shut out Tampa (who hasn’t?) and they held the Raiders to seven points. But the Giants have surrendered 30 or more points in five of 13 games, and 20 or more nine times.
So the Giants are teetering on the brink of elimination, with a Monday night trip to face a surging Redskins team on tap.
Though this Steelers-style collapse likely will result in plenty of changes in New York, the most obvious and likely candidate for cancellation of his dental plan (and all other forms of compensation) is Sheridan.