The 13th Sunday of the NFL season brought bad luck for plenty of teams. But good luck for others.
And that’s the extent to which I’ll force a triskaidekaphobia-inspired introduction onto this week’s edition of the Monday 10-pack.
Actually, I could also expand the normal list of 10 takes to 13. Luckily enough, I know not to take on the extra work.
1. Packers close in on 16-0.
Many believed that, if the Packers could get past the giant-killing Giants in Week 13, the defending Super Bowl champs would be virtually guaranteed a perfect regular season.
Given the current state of the four remaining opponents, that outcome is looking more and more likely.
For starters, the Raiders looked ragged in Miami; they next come to Lambeau Field on Sunday. Then, the Packers head to Kansas City. Though the Chiefs possibly will avoid being blown out, it’s a stretch to imagine them beating the Packers.
Then come the back-to-back season-ending home games, which suddenly look a lot easier, given the injury-fueled implosion of the Bears and the penalty-driven collapse of the Lions.
The broader question becomes whether the Packers can win the following three games — the ones that really count. The added pressure of becoming the first 19-0 team in league history won’t help. The larger challenge could come, ironically, from the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. If it’s cold, wet, windy, etc. on a January day when a team like the 49ers come to town, the Packers’ home-field advantage could be neutralized, since the Niners excel at running the ball and stopping the run.
2. Silver lining for the Giants.
In 2007, the Giants hosted the 15-0 Patriots. In a game with no playoff implications for either team, New York stayed within three points, losing late by a score of 38-35. The near miss gave the Giants a surge of confidence that propelled them through the playoffs and into a rematch with the Patriots.
And if you don’t know what happened when they played again, the sport is called football. We hope you become a fan of the game.
This time, another 38-35 home loss to another unbeaten juggernaut could provide similar confidence to a Giants team that sits one game behind the Cowboys, with two games to play against them. Though there are many differences, the Giants could use the fact that they gave the Packers everything they could handle as the bucket of ice water to snap the Giants from yet another late-season funk.
If it doesn’t happen, it could be the last late-season funk over which coach Tom Coughlin ever presides.
3. Bears ready to break glass in event of emergency.
When Sunday began, the always-accurate Jay Glazer reported that the Bears are “absolutely not interested” in free-agent quarterback (and Chicago native) Donovan McNabb.
When Sunday ended, our colleague John Mullin of CSNChicago.com was reporting that the Bears would now consider adding McNabb.
The change of heart demonstrated the degree of desperation that the Bears already are feeling. Quarterback Caleb Hanie has been dreadful (three more picks on Sunday), rookie Nathan Enderle isn’t ready, and Josh McCown is, well, Josh McCown. Although serious questions remain regarding the fitness, work ethic, and skills of the 13-year veteran, McNabb remains a better option than any of the three healthy quarterbacks currently on the roster, combined.
But even McNabb may not be enough to make a difference, especially if running back Matt Forte misses more than a game or two with a partially torn MCL.
With offensive coordinator Mike Martz already reportedly set to be dumped, coach Lovie Smith could be on the hot seat (again) in 2012, if the Bears don’t make it to the postseason in 2011. That’s why they’re now inclined to consider giving McNabb a chance, even if there’s not much of a chance he’ll make them any better.
4. Chargers aren’t dead yet.
It’s easy to assume that the San Diego Chargers will end up on the outside looking in when the season ends. At 4-7 and with six straight losses, there’s no reason to believe that Chargers can turn it around.
But there’s one curious fact, based on something the Chargers accomplished three years ago.
In 2008, the Chargers lost eight of the first 13 games, and they trailed the 8-5 Broncos with three weeks remaining in the regular season. But San Diego won the final three games. Just as importantly, the Broncos lost the final three games.
When the dust settled, the Chargers made it to the postseason as the AFC West champs, they beat the Colts in the wild-card round, they gave the Steelers more of a fight than expected the following week, and the Broncos fired Mike Shanahan.
It’s not likely that the Chargers will pull it off again, but that one slice of history means that, for now, we can’t rule anything out. Especially with the Raiders suddenly looking worse-than-ordinary and the Cinderella Broncos a shattered slipper away from falling apart.
5. Team Tebow will be tough to beat in January.
It would be dangerous, however, to assume that the clock will strike midnight for Tim Tebow before the postseason. With each passing week, the Broncos gain more and more confidence, knowing that as long as they can stay within a score of the opponent, Team Tebow can ultimately prevail.
And that attitude will serve them well in January, when confidence becomes nearly as important as talent. Adversity eventually strikes every playoff team (except for the 1985 Bears), and the Broncos know how to overcome it because they’re doing it on a weekly basis.
Then there’s the fact that, as the media attention increases, Tebow will continue to be the focal point of it, he’ll be ready for it based on all the attention he has absorbed throughout his career, and it’ll allow his teammates to go about their business without being caught up in the distractions.
Some thought Michael Irvin was crazy to suggest Tebow can take the Broncos to the Super Bowl. It arguably would be crazier to presume that he can’t.
And it’s even crazier to continue to assume that he’s a gimmick quarterback. On Sunday, Tebow ran the ball only four times. In contrast, he completed 10 of 15 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns, good for a passer rating on 149.3.
Though his mechanics remain flawed and his accuracy remains at times coincidental, Tebow’s passing numbers compare favorably to those of his predecessor, Kyle Orton. As Football Night In America editorial consultant Elliott Kalb pointed out after Sunday’s game, Tebow has now thrown 158 passes; Orton threw 155. While Orton has more completions and a higher completion percentage, Tebow has more yards, a higher per-attempt average, more touchdowns (10 for Tebow, eight for Orton), far fewer interceptions (one for Tebow, seven for Orton), and a passer rating more than 12 points higher.
Most importantly, Tebow has six wins in seven starts. Even if John Elway’s body language suggests that he doesn’t like the way it’s happening, it’s impossible to argue with the results.
It’ll be even harder to do that if (when) the Broncos start knocking off some of the supposedly elite AFC teams in the playoffs.
6. Ravens may no longer need Ray Lewis.
After Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis injured a foot three weeks ago in Seattle, rumors swirled that Lewis would not play again this season. Coach John Harbaugh dismissed the notion that Lewis won’t be back, but he already has missed three of the final seven games. Jason La Canfora of NFL Network suggested on Sunday that Lewis could be back in Week 15, if Baltimore needs to win the game.
Given that the Ravens, Steelers, Patriots, and Texans are each 9-3, the Ravens will need to win the game. But here’s the thing. They’ve shown they don’t need Ray Lewis.
And this could be the best way for the post-Ray Ravens to realize that they’ll be fine after he inevitably retires. The training wheels came off on the fly, the Ravens kept peddling, and they’re 3-0 without him.
More importantly, they’ve found a way to win against an inferior foe on the road the week after a huge victory. That’s something Lewis couldn’t will them to do in three prior chances this season.
Though the Ravens will find a place for Lewis as long as he wants one, the team’s success without him suggest that, if the foot keeps Lewis from playing again this year and if the Ravens can continue to thrive, it could be the right time for him to realize that it’s the right time to move on.
7. Peyton’s place may no longer be in Indy.
Another face-of-the-franchise-type player could be leaving his team under far different circumstances. The Colts and quarterback Peyton Manning continue to careen toward an inevitable No. 1 pick in the draft and a $28 million option bonus that comes due to Manning in early March.
In a lengthy interview on the CBS pregame show, which somehow seemed even longer than it was, Manning disputed the recent suggestion from Vice Chairman Bill Polian that the two men discussed the possibility of the team picking a quarterback, explaining that the conversation occurred two years ago. That discrepancy suggests a deeper disconnect that could drive the two sides apart.
Then there’s the ominous explanation from Manning that the eventual decisions regarding his future will become apparent in March. That’s a far cry from Manning’s past proclamations that he’ll never play for another team.
Don’t be surprised, then, if Manning decides to move on. The bigger question is whether he’ll play elsewhere in 2012 or whether, like former Colts receiver Marvin Harrison, Manning won’t find an alternative destination that will pay him top-of-the-market money and that will give him the ingredients for the success that Peyton craves.
8. Raheem is nervous, and he should be.
Bucs coach Raheem Morris has become increasingly skittish this season, most recently dropping an “F” bomb while discussing his decision to take a page from the Mike Singletary coaching playbook. Morris is nervous for a very good reason.
Morris has a contract that runs through 2012. While G.M. Mark Dominik received earlier this year a four-year extension, Morris hasn’t.
And so after the 2011 season, the Bucs need to decide whether to extend Raheem’s deal, to let him coach as a lame duck, or to move on.
Though there’s currently no obvious reason to believe that the Bucs will fire Morris, Morris knows that plenty of stuff can be happening behind the scenes. He knows this because, in early 2009, he and Dominik were the guys who secretly were being lined up behind the scenes to replace former head coach Jon Gruden and former G.M. Bruce Allen.
So what’s happening behind Raheem’s back now? He’s surely wondering about that, and that’s surely making him even more anxious than he should be.
Some would say that, by taking the job held by his former boss while his former boss didn’t know he’d be the former boss, Morris deserves a similar fate. Regardless, his own experiences are now making him wonder what ownership may be cooking up without his knowledge. And if ownership isn’t up to something, they need to extend Raheem’s contract sooner rather than later, in order to put the coach’s mind at ease regarding a dynamic that ownership utilized when hiring him in the first place.
9. Chris Johnson moves closer to being Chris Johnson again.
Last week, Titans running back Chris Johnson rushed for 190 yards. It created the impression that Johnson has finally rediscovered the magic that fueled a holdout that caused him to lose said magic. But the tape showed a guy who still couldn’t explode like he did earlier in his career.
This week, Johnson added another 153. And there were hints that he’s getting closer to rediscovering his ability to hit a hole and explode vertically, untouchable even by men who think they have an easy angle on him.
If Johnson can get it back this year, the Titans could be a major factor. The No. 6 seed remains up for grabs, with a total of five five-loss teams, each of whom hold a two-game lead over the next cut of contenders. The Titans are among that quintet, and they’re likely the most overlooked. With Johnson churning up the yardage and getting closer to playing like his old self, maybe they shouldn’t be.
10. Schwartz needs to get his team under control.
Much has been said about the stomping incident committed on Thanksgiving by Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. More should have been said about the role of coach Jim Schwartz in nudging his players toward the line over which Suh leapt, and then pretending to have no responsibility when it happened.
Schwartz wants his defensive players to be salty, nasty. It makes them more aggressive, which makes them more intimidating and thus more effective. The mindset traces directly to Schwartz’s time in Tennessee where, despite having an influential position on the Competition Committee, Titans coach Jeff Fisher cultivated a chippy defense that wasn’t above a periodic punch or kick or, as the case may be, cleat stomp on a bare forehead.
With Schwartz enabling and/or creating Suh, other players have followed suit — on offense. Last night, receiver Titus Young drew a drive-killing penalty for an open-handed blow to the head worse than the one that got Richard Seymour ejected in Miami. Then, tight end Brandon Pettigrew, during a late-game drive even more deliberate than Donovan McNabb’s punt-pass-and-puke effort in Super Bowl XXXIX, actually shoved an official. Amazingly, Pettigrew wasn’t ejected.
At some point, Schwartz needs to be held responsible for the conduct of his players. The NFL decided this year to implement a procedure for fining teams based on certain player misconduct; the program needs to be expanded to take money out of the coaches’ pockets, too.
Then again, if enough dumb penalties contribute to enough losses, coaches like Schwartz ultimately will be held accountable, since they’ll be fired.