It’s crunch time in the NFL. With four weeks to play, there are no shortage of story lines.
Here are 10 of them for Week 14.
We’ll probably think of some more between now and Sunday. We’ll likely pass along only the stupidest ones.
1. Bears will have to blitz Brady.
The Patriots have perfected a short, quick-strike passing game that allows them to methodically but inevitably move the ball down the field in small chunks and more often than not score points. The Bears rely most of the time on a defense that forces the offense to methodically move the ball down the field in small chunks and more often than not not score points.
And so the Patriots should be able to do exactly what the Cover Two defense tries to force a team to do.
That’s why the Bears will have to get bold and take chances if they hope to slow down the Patriots. By the time one of the four down linemen get to New England quarterback Tom Brady, the ball likely will be gone. Chicago will need to send extra players in unconventional ways in the hopes of disrupting Brady before he can work through his reads and find an open receiver.
Good luck with that.
With receiver Randy Moss gone and Brady fully recovered from a torn ACL that wiped out his 2008 season, the Patriots are executing the kind of offense that would have allowed them to beat the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Quick reads, quick decisions, quick releases. Credit coach Bill Belichick for coming up with an offense that is immune to a fierce pass rush — as long as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history is available to push the buttons.
2. Giants, Vikings meet once again.
Since 1999, the Colts and Patriots have played every year except one (2002). Since 1999, the Vikings and Giants also have played every year except one (2006).
Though the games between the Vikings and Giants rarely if ever have merited sweeps-week placement, there have been some doozies between the two. In 2000, the Giants destroyed the Vikings, 41-0, in the NFC title game. In 2007, the Vikings went back to the Meadowlands and shredded the Giants, 41-17, prompting real concerns regarding the eventual Super Bowl MVP’s future in New York.
This year, the game carries no practical meaning for the Vikings, but plenty for the Giants. A fifth straight loss to the Vikings could spark a slide that could carry the Giants right out of the playoffs — and in turn Tom Coughlin right out of a job.
And while the game won’t help the Vikings get into the postseason, another win will get interim coach Leslie Frazier closer to winning the position for 2011 and beyond.
3. Chargers get a lucky break.
An ugly home loss to the Raiders brought a four-game winning streak to a halt. Now trailing the Chiefs by two games in the division and having already lost to their rivals in Kansas City, a home loss to the Chiefs on Sunday will essentially end San Diego’s season.
Thanks to Matt Cassel’s defective appendix, the Chargers have caught a huge break.
Cassel’s condition has received limited national attention, even though he was named the AFC’s offensive player of the month and has thrown 23 touchdown passes against only four interceptions. It’s unlikely that Cassel will play, which means that the Chargers will have to overcome Brodie Croyle.
If they can’t, the Chargers have no business competing for a playoff berth.
4. Del Rio may not be out of the woods, yet.
Earlier this year, after losing consecutive games by 25 points each to the Chargers and the Eagles, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio widely was believed to be only one more blowout loss away from getting blown out of Jacksonville.
The Jags instead upended the Colts, 31-28, via a 59-yard field goal with time expiring. After another pair of 20-plus-point losses, the Jags caught fire, winning four of five and taking a one-game lead over the underachieving Colts in the AFC South.
But with Del Rio on what many to believe to be a playoffs-or-else mandate, the eighth-year coach won’t be truly safe unless and until the Jags make the playoffs.
With the Colts beating the Titans on Thursday night, the Jags now need to hold serve against the Raiders. More importantly, Jacksonville needs to be ready to knock off the Colts in their own backyard next weekend. If not, the playoffs may not happen — and Del Rio may not be around in 2011.
5. Trouble lurking for Shanahan?
In the dark recesses of his private office, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder surely has to be wondering whether he made the right decision.
Last year, the league’s worst-kept secret came from D.C., where it was assumed that Jim Zorn would be fired and Mike Shanahan would be hired not long after the end of the 2009 season. Snyder coveted Shanahan from the moment he became available after the 2008 sason, reportedly trying to hire him multiple times before actually doing so.
Nearly a year later, Snyder has to be wondering whether he made a big mistake. Shanahan has bungled the relationship with defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, and Shanahan has unnecessarily undermined quarterback Donovan McNabb by offering up a string of admittedly false excuses for a bizarre late-game benching of the supposedly franchise quarterback in Detroit.
Is Shanahan really a good coach? Or is he a guy who built his legend via back-to-back Super Bowls won by an entrenched Hall of Fame quarterback and a roster largely built by Shanahan’s predecessors and held together by proven salary cap violations?
We’d be shocked if Snyder isn’t asking himself those questions.
Though Snyder likely won’t fire Shanahan after only one year, whispers of the hot seat will chase Shanahan in 2011 if he struggles. And if he fails, the door could be open for Snyder to hire the head coach who worked in Tampa with Redskins G.M. Bruce Allen.
If/when Jon Gruden fails (if he indeed becomes the next coach of the ‘Skins), there will surely be another big-name coach who’s willing to take a big contract with the possibility of a parting gift in the form of a huge buyout.
6. Vick’s biggest test has arrived.
Four years ago next week, the Falcons and Cowboys met on a Saturday night. Mike Vick completed 16 of 24 passes for 237 yards and four touchdowns. His passer rating exceeded 120.
And the Cowboys won the game by 10 points. It was the first of three straight losses to end Vick’s career in Atlanta.
On Sunday night, Vick faces the Cowboys as a starter for the first time since that evening in December 2006. Though he completed a 76-yard touchdown pass in Philly’s 34-14 loss to the Cowboys during the playoffs, Vick had limited chances last season against the blue-starred ‘Boys.
Health permitting, Vick will face the Cowboys twice over the final four weeks of the season, and he’ll need to come up big in both games if he hopes to propel Philly to the playoffs.
Given that the Cowboys beat the Eagles three times in Donovan McNabb’s final Philly season, Eagles fans are understandably skittish. Vick can further ingratiate himself to all of them by taking his team to Dallas and coming away with a much-needed win.
7. Old NFC West foes reunite, with plenty on the line.
Ten years ago, the New Orleans Saints secured their first postseason win in team history by beating the Rams, who at the time were the Greatest Show on Turf, sandwiched between a pair of Super Bowl appearances.
Today, these former NFC West rivals reside in different divisions, meeting only four times since splitting up in 2002, with each team winning twice.
This time around, the stakes are very high for both franchises. The Rams, arguably the surprise of the season at 6-6, are tied with the Seahawks atop the NFC West. The Saints trail the Falcons by a game, and New Orleans must keep pace with Atlanta.
Last year, the only question would have been whether the Saints would win by more than 40 or more than 50. This year, with the Saints showing little dominance and with the Rams hanging around in most of their games, the outcome could be a lot closer, even if it’s likely that the Saints will find a way to win when the game is on the line.
If the Rams happen to steal this one, St. Louis would have to be taken seriously not only in their division, but also in the postseason.
8. Bengals have another chance to save face.
Coming off an emotional, hard-fought win over the Ravens in Baltimore, the Steelers easily could overlook the lowly Bengals, especially since the Jets come to town next weekend.
Even though the Bengals are 2-10, they’re 3-2 in their last five games in Pittsburgh, a stat even more jarring than the Pats’ 4-1 record at Heinz Field. And though the Bengals haven’t won many games this year, they often find themselves in a close fight late (even if they have to dig out of a 20-point hole to get there).
So Sunday could be a stunner for the Steelers, if they overlook the Bengals. A Pittsburgh loss and a Baltimore win would leave the two teams tied at 9-4 with three games to play.
Though it would be crazy to pick against the Steelers, it would be even crazier for the Steelers to not take this week’s game every bit as seriously as they took last week’s game against the Ravens.
9. Ravens may have a harder time recovering than Jets.
In the wake of Week 13, it widely has been been presumed that the Jets will be reeling after a 45-3 blowout loss to their top rivals in the AFC East.
But what about the Ravens? The Jets knew fairly early in the game at Foxboro that they’d be relegated to second place in the division, and fifth seed at best in the playoff seeding. The Ravens had the game won until quarterback Joe Flacco had the ball stripped from his grasp by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu.
So now the Ravens are saddled with the regret not of what might have been, but of what they had in their fingers and squandered.
The good news, if there is any? Under coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens have played five road postseason games in two seasons, winning three. They’ll likely need every bit of that experience, now that the Steelers have the inside track to win the division.
10. Foster can pull off a rare feat.
Texans running back Arian Foster, who entered the league as an undrafted rookie in 2009, currently leads the league with 1,230 rushing yards.
If he can hold on and finish the season as the leading rusher, Foster would become only the second undrafted player since the commencement in 1967 of the so-called “common draft” to finish with the most rushing yards.
The other? Priest Holmes, with 1,555 yards in 2001.
If Foster pulls it off, he will have earned it; closing the gap down to 53 yards is Jaguars tailback Maurice Jones-Drew, who has bounced out of an early-season funk. Also in the mix? Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs, a highly underrated performer with 1,123 yards.
Still, both Jones-Drew and Charles entered the league via the draft. Foster has done it the hard way, so even if he doesn’t finish the season as the rushing leader, he still has accomplished more than anyone every thought he would, seven times over.