Week 7 of the NFL season is a reminder that you cannot have it both ways. You are either a Patriots fan or a Jets fan. You agree with either the Vikings’ punter or the Cardinals’ kicker. Jonathan Vilma is either suspended or he isn’t. The Giants are trying to have it both ways with a two-headed scout-team RGIII impersonator, and Ike Taylor would like to commit penalties and criticize his critics, but football always comes down to a win-lose, either-or scenario (except for ties). One injury-plagued team must even decide whether to ford the river or wait for the ferry. Hitch up your wagon, because Lowdown is hitting the trail!
(All times Eastern; all Sunday games ranked by quality of matchup.)
Ravens at Texans
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Texans by 7
The Ravens play so poorly in road games (see their narrow 9-6 win in Kansas City two weeks ago or their 12-7 loss to the Jaguars last year for examples) that there can only be one explanation: They travel to every road game via covered wagon on the Oregon Trail:
“Welcome, John Harbaugh! You have chosen the no-huddle Grueling pace. Are you sure you would not prefer the Steady pace that served your party well in the past, considering your Bare Bones rations? Suit yourself.
“Oh no, your offense has broken a wagon wheel. Joe Flacco will hunt for some provisions. Flacco bagged a bison with a 50-yard shot, but you can only carry 100 pounds of meat back to the wagon, and he did not bring enough bullets to kill squirrels. Now it is time to caulk your wagon and ford a river. Oops, your oxen drowned, or at least your offensive line is not able to withstand an elite pass rush.
“Uh-oh, it looks like Ray Lewis was snake bit by a torn triceps. Lardarius Webb tore an ACL and had to be left on the trail. Haloti Ngata and Jimmy Smith are suffering from exhaustion, and there is some strange news about Ed Reed. Ed Reed has died of dysentery! Wait, no, it is a shoulder injury, or perhaps just a Pay Attention to Ed Reed Injury.
“You are almost at Reliant Stadium. Will you ride the rapids to the game or take the toll road? Choose carefully. When you arrive, you will face a team you defeated at home in the playoffs last year, when they were down to their third-string quarterback and you were nearly at full strength. They would love to turn your depleted party into a tombstone by the side of the trail.
“Also, beware of your special teams star, Jacoby Jones, who was also your special teams star in that playoff game, even though he played for the Texans then. Is he really a key member of your party, or a double agent? Oh wait, this is ‘Oregon Trail,’ not ‘Splinter Cell.’”
Prediction: Texans 27, Ravens 17
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Jets at Patriots
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Patriots by 11 ½
You may love the Jets and loathe the Patriots, loathe the Jets and love the Patriots, loathe both teams, love to loathe both teams, be sick to death of both teams, or admire and appreciate both the Jets and Patriots for the daring brands of football that they play. Whatever your choice, your opinions about the Jets and Patriots open a window into your entire value system: your political leanings, socioeconomic background, consumer preferences, relationship with your parents, relationship with your pets, everything.
If you love the Jets and loathe the Patriots, you are inherently suspicious of faceless corporate entities, patriarchal social institutions, obtrusive government, churches, schools, offices and standing structures in general. You would rather go to the greasy neighborhood diner than the big, impersonal chain restaurants, even if you sometimes find a family of spider crickets nesting in your turkey Reuben. You aren’t one of those conspiracy nuts or anything, but how do we know for sure that all that footage of the Grand Canyon isn’t fake? You think Rex Ryan is funny, and you find straight talk and candid bluster “refreshing” whenever it is not directed at you.
If you loathe the Jets and love the Patriots, you believe in the preservation of the status quo, even if it requires extreme restriction of freedoms, privacy-crushing surveillance and the forced subjugation of everyone except a few shirtless tight ends. Amazon.com keeps recommending “The Prince” and “The Fountainhead” to you, but you hate books that pussyfoot around the harsh realities of what needs to be done. You have grown persnickety in the eight years since the Patriots’ last championship and now correct friends and co-workers by saying things like, “a turkey Reuben is a Rachel.” You probably also loathe the Yankees and love the Red Sox, claiming that you do so because you like “scrappy underdogs.” You find this dichotomy at the core of your personality charming in the (very long) periods of alone time you have to contemplate such things.
If you loathe both teams, you are a staunch traditionalist who believes in broad-based, farsighted business practices, thinks that football teams and other big businesses are public trusts with some basic responsibility to the community, and adhere to all kinds of other crazy concepts that went out of date in the 1930s. You’re wearing a flannel shirt and listening to a Mumford & Sons album, on CD if not vinyl, as you read this. You are almost certainly a Giants or Steelers fan, and you spend the week leading up to Jets-Patriots lamenting that your team, with its two recent Super Bowls, does not draw nearly this much media attention, all the while privately congratulating yourself for rooting for the team that does not draw nearly this much media attention, because yours is the road not traveled, Captain Microbrew.
If you love to loathe both teams, you appreciate things like football on a much deeper level than the mere mouth-breathers who prefer experiencing actual joy and delight to assessing the world with varying gradients of scorn. After the game, you can return to enjoying “Josie and the Pussycats” cartoons for their meta-textual badness while the rest of us hug our families and stuff.
If you are sick of both teams, yet you have voluntarily read a 500-word game preview about them, you should probably have the “love to loathe” guy from the last paragraph explain the irony of your plight to you.
If you admire and appreciate both the Jets and Patriots for the daring brands of football that they play, the pharmacy has been leaving messages for weeks, your allergy medication and anti-depressants sometimes cause a rare reaction, and, well, that puppy you have been cradling for two weeks is really a 10-pound bag of cornmeal.
While our algorithms use your choice to flood your computer with targeted advertising and crippling viruses, let’s do the football part. The Jets are coming off a 35-9 victory in which their run-at-all-costs philosophy worked perfectly. The Patriots are coming off a 24-23 loss in which their “WHAT IMPUDENT WHELP DARES TO QUESTION THE PATRIOTS?” philosophy once again bit them on the butt. We all know what happens next.
Prediction: Patriots 28, Jets 16
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Redskins at Giants
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Giants by 5 ½
The Giants are ranked first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rating (a high-tech power ranking that looks forward instead of backward) after their convincing win in San Francisco. First place is an awkward position for them to find themselves in at any time before the final six minutes of the Super Bowl. The team prepared for Robert Griffin III this week by combining backup quarterback David Carr and receiver (and college “slash” player) Jerrel Jernigan into one hybrid scout-team “Frankenweenie” quarterback. "With Jerrel's speed, it's very life-like,” fullback Henry Hynoski told ESPN New York, ignoring the monstrous two-headed abomination of nature lined up over center.
Jason Pierre-Paul, who has already embarrassed Cam Newton, shut down the 49ers’ WildKap package and battled Michael Vick to a draw this season, is not that impressed by Griffin. JPP has a message for RGIII: “Don’t bring it to my side,” he told the New York Daily News. “Go the other way.” That message was wholeheartedly endorsed by Osi Umenyiora’s agent.
Prediction: Giants 21, Redskins 17
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Steelers at Bengals
8:20 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Ike Taylor received a lot of criticism last week after committing three penalties and giving up a handful of easy receptions against the Titans. Or perhaps that’s just my opinion. "Give these people the facts, man,” Taylor said Tuesday on his radio show, going so far as to single out one local reporter. “I can understand opinions, so I'm going to give you my opinion. If you got something to say, say it with the facts."
Well, OK. Taylor has committed five pass-interference penalties and two holding fouls in five games. He gave up a touchdown to the Jets in Week 2 where it looked like Santonio Holmes could have gotten into the end zone with his ankles tied together. When he wasn’t clutching and grabbing at Kenny Britt, and even when he was, Britt blew past him for 30-yard gains up the sideline. Taylor is facing A.J. Green, a deep threat who makes Holmes and Britt look like overrated, unreliable receivers for bad offenses (because guess what), and Troy Polamalu won’t be back anytime soon to provide help at safety.
Also, the Steelers have no running game whatsoever, and it will only get worse with Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert out. But you don’t hear Baron Batch complaining about criticism, do you? Of course, since no one knows who the heck he is, it is hard to tell if he is complaining or not.
Prediction: Bengals 22, Steelers 20
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Cardinals at Vikings
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Vikings by 7
This is a presidential election year, and the debate for the hearts and minds of our nation’s voters wages on passionately among this game’s special teamers.
On the left is Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, champion of progressive causes both in this world and the “World of Warcraft.” Whether the issue is gay-marriage rights or gnoll population control, Kluwe is not afraid to speak out. Love him or hate him, Kluwe is the voice of a new generation: a half-jock, half-nerd who will reshape society as soon as someone designs a convenient, fun-to-use tablet application for it.
On the right is Cardinals kicker Jay Feely, champion of conservative causes whose Twitter profile exclaims “I want to change the world!” right after listing fatherhood, golfing, fishing and kicking as his interests, in that order. (Like Kluwe, he has his priorities straight, though in a different way.) Feely tweets about personal and professional “accountability” when not missing 40-yard game-winning field goals. Oh, that is not fair: Feely has nailed plenty of game winners over the years, and his 61-yard game-tying launch last week was the only reason the Cardinals had a chance to win in the first place. But it only goes to show that “accountability” is a complex web of achievements and practices, not just a yes/no, pass/fail scenario, in just about every profession in the world. Except field-goal kicking: You have to make those end-of-game 40-yarders.
Enough about kickers and punters. Let’s talk about football. The Vikings and Cardinals are both defense-and-ball-control teams, meaning that there is little philosophical difference between them, and their strategies for success are both built upon expediencies and imperfect compromises. Their leaders, John Skelton and Christian Ponder, have their merits but are highly flawed candidates for their roles. Neither team represents a true path to greatness, only hard-fought adequacy, so Vikings-Cardinals leaves us with two satisfactory-at-best choices that make us long for systemic changes that neither team has proven historically capable of making.
Oh dear, the political metaphor is starting to get a little too real and depressing now. Time for some fishing, a little gaming and some Twitter.
Prediction: Vikings 19, Cardinals 14
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Cowboys at Panthers
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Cowboys by 2 ½
DeMarco Murray (foot) is out for Sunday’s game, but Felix Jones is ready to play the workhorse role for a few weeks. “We feel really good about Felix Jones, been a really good football player for us for the last four years," Jason Garrett told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Wait a minute, since when does Garrett comment on running backs? That is Jerry Jones’ job! For years, Jones has enraptured audiences with his combination of garbled scout speak and inappropriately applied terms from other sports when second-guessing his coach’s running back selections. Jones is usually good for a quote something like this:
Felix Jones has great burst and initial physicality, but Phillip Tanner can also sink his hips and pass protect with explosive fundamentals. I see Tanner as more of a starter and Jones as more of a long reliever or swing forward off the bench, with Laurence Vickers as the checking-line wicket.
Of course, after managing the clock terribly before settling for a long field goal attempt in the loss to the Ravens, mouthing platitudes about Felix Jones may be the only responsibility Garrett has left.
Prediction: Panthers 28, Cowboys 24
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Saints at Buccaneers
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Saints by 1 ½
Jonathan Vilma returned to Saints practice this week, parachuting onto the field from a height of 120,000 feet after a judge ruled that Roger Goodell’s jurisdiction does not extend to low earth orbit. Teammates were encouraged to see Vilma return; the Saints’ defense performed as if its game plans were as unreadable as trundle bed assembly instructions without him, so it needed the boost. Fans around the nation, meanwhile, shouted, “Huzzah! Another plot twist in the Bountygate scandal! Why, this is as much fun as watching a solid hour of political advertising, followed by two full hours of ‘Underemployed!’”
While Vilma bored America with his constant efforts to pursue his livelihood and defend his professional and personal reputation, Goodell agreed to hand over his evidence against Vilma to a federal judge, who gladly accepted the shoebox full of scribbled Post-it notes and decorated dream journals. This is all a formality. Once Goodell contacts the right power broker at the right autumn cabin on Lake Winnipesaukee, Vilma’s suspension will be at least temporarily reinstated, even if it requires an army of lawyers storming the field in black sedans during pregame warmups. (Especially if it requires an army of lawyers storming the field in black sedans during pregame warmups.) The net result of this latest round of legal finagling is that if the Saints really need Vilma to beat the Buccaneers, then they have problems Vilma cannot possibly solve.
Prediction: Saints 30, Buccaneers 20
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Titans at Bills
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Bills by 3
Shawne Merriman is back for the Bills. Remember Shawne Merriman? Think back -- 2007 Chargers, 12 ½ sacks? That guy. He had some injury-marred seasons for his old team after a few career years, and when the Bills signed him, he promptly suffered a string of injuries and looked out of position the few times he took the field. No, you are thinking of Mario Williams. Merriman had his best seasons five or six years ago, but by the time the Bills got him, he was considered a situational player best suited for a narrowly defined roll as a pass rusher. No, you are thinking of Mark Anderson, whom Merriman is replacing. Merriman is the guy who … look, it doesn’t matter against the Titans. The Bills just have to make sure they don’t try any wacky Brad Smith wildcat plays or do anything dumb on special teams.
Prediction: Bills 24, Titans 16
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Browns at Colts
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Colts by 2 ½
Trent Richardson was back at practice for the Browns on Wednesday, and his presence alone could give the team its second victory of the season. The Colts allow 159 rushing yards per game and five yards per carry, a weakness the Jets exploited by rushing 44 times for 252 yards, often from the full-house formation Tony Sparano dreams of when he falls asleep under his favorite quilt in front of the fireplace.
The Colts’ best opportunities this year will come against teams that cannot or will not run. They already beat the Packers (will not) and have two upcoming games against the Titans (cannot, still think they can). Had the schedule cooperated, they may have been able to upset the Eagles (will not, will never) or Steelers (cannot, compulsively obsessed with trying). The Colts’ best hope is for the Browns to do what the Vikings did in Week 2: forget that they are built around a tackle-breaking monster at running back and throw the ball 36 times. With the Browns’ entire staff engaged in post-ownership-change finger-pointing right now, anything is possible.
Prediction: Browns 22, Colts 14
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Packers at Rams
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Packers by 5
The Packers now have a viable running game because of Alex Green, the second-year pro who rushed 22 times for 65 yards in the Packers’ blowout victory over the Texans. Green said this week that he learned a lot about his craft by watching injured starter Cedric Benson, which is obvious, because Benson is the guy to watch if you want to rush 22 times for 65 yards. The Packers can get by at 2.95 yards per rush as long as they are getting those 2.95 yards more than seven or eight times per game. All they need is for Aaron Rodgers to be healthy enough to pick apart defenses that may not respect the running game, but aren’t openly defying it. Of course, Rodgers was limited in practice with a bad ankle this week, and Green made the injury report with a bad shoulder, so the Packers may be back to calling four Rodgers scrambles and a Randall Cobb end-around a running game. Against the Rams, that just might be enough.
Prediction: Packers 23, Rams 10
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Jaguars at Raiders
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Raiders by 4
Mike Mularkey told the Florida Times-Union this week that he wants Blaine Gabbert to run more often. “Either quarterbacks scramble to throw, or a quarterback can scramble to run. Sometimes, you’ve just got to tell them even in practice out there, to run. Even in a seven-on-seven period we want him to scramble to throw or run.” That’s right, folks: Instead of installing an offense in which receivers get open and the quarterback completes passes to them, the Jaguars are actually emphasizing scrambling during seven-on-seven drills. That Mularkey is an innovator. Soon, the Jaguars will devote practice time to pointing in the proper direction after offensive fumbles.
Prediction: Raiders 19, Jaguars 6
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Lions at Bears
8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Bears by 7
Gosh, has it really been three whole weeks since the last Jay Cutler joke? Where has the time gone? A few weeks out of the limelight, whether because of the bye or a Jaguars game, can be great for a team that needs the news cycle to turn over a few times so it can re-establish its message.
The Bears’ defense has produced 13 interceptions and allowed just six offensive touchdowns. Their running game survived a Matt Forte scare and is averaging a healthy 124 yards per game, though grinding out a 41-3 victory always makes the rushing stats look better. Cutler has suffered only three interceptions and five sacks in his last three games. On paper, the Bears are one of the best teams in the NFL, and while their raw numbers are helped by a Rams-Colts-Jaguars-heavy early schedule, great teams can often be spotted by their ability to blow out the opponents they are supposed to blow out.
Of course, the combination of the Lions’ front four and "Monday Night Football" cameras could put us right back where we started in a few days. Enjoy those brief paragraphs of legitimate analysis while you still can.
Prediction: Bears 20, Lions 16