From hurricanes to Halloween to the election, it's hard to stay focused on football. Jared Allen dressed as a hippie for Halloween, but Pete Carroll knows that Allen is no peacenik at the line of scrimmage. Colts-Dolphins is the NFL equivalent of a swing state, while the Bears have bubbled up once again as the NFC's October surprise. Hurricane Sandy made strange bedfellows of the Giants, but Tom Coughlin is keeping his team's priorities straight. Don't let the post-Halloween sugar rush keep you from focusing: Lowdown and the Falcons are your keys to a balanced diet!
(All times Eastern; all Sunday games ranked by quality of matchup.)
Cowboys at Falcons
8:20 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Falcons by 4
The Falcons are … a football team.
That's the kind of insightful analysis you come here for, right? But that opener is not an indication that we spent the week waiting for Aquaman to summon electric eels to recharge our servers so we could do some real research. No, the Falcons are a football team, in the sense that the Cowboys are a vanity project, the Patriots a philosophical construct, the Jets a marketing gimmick, the Eagles a once-compelling television show trudging through its 14th season, the Redskins a luxury party boat owned by a dot-com tycoon, and so on.
The Falcons are a no-frills affair. They are a football team in the same way that a bag of generic lima beans is lima beans, not Organically Grown Fair Trade All-Natural Super Food. That is not an insult to the Falcons or to lima beans: If you ate more lima beans, you would be far healthier, and if you watched more Falcons football than, say, Jets Grudge Match No. 153 or a roundtable debate on the merits of Alex Smith, you would get more satisfaction from your football experience.
The Falcons play an exciting-yet-traditional brand of football. There are no options or wildcats; the no-huddle appears near the two-minute warning or when the defense looks gassed, not at random intervals. The Falcons have four skill-position players who can be the focal point of a game plan, so they defy easy "stop Jason Witten, and you stop this offense" analysis. Their defense isn't of the same caliber, but when the offense is humming, the defense isn't on the field much. This is stick-to-your-ribs stuff, and if your main criticism of the Falcons is that they are a bunch of chokity-choke-chokers in the playoffs, keep in mind that last year they crashed straight into the Giants, the ultimate Lima Bean Team.
At this point in the capsule, we would normally contrast the quiet professionalism of the Falcons with some Jerry Jones hand-wringing about Jason Garrett, Tony Romo, Dez Bryant or some other shiny object. The Cowboys get plenty of attention - always have, always will, and they're always courting more. This capsule isn't about a daytime soap opera. It was about a football team. And lima beans. But mostly a football team.
Prediction: Falcons 26, Cowboys 20
Steelers at Giants
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Giants by 3
Eli Manning evacuated his Hoboken home in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and spent the week in a hotel. Tight end Martellus Bennett spent a few days at tackle Kevin Boothe's house, drawing pictures with Boothe's two-year old son. ("Let's draw Coach Coughlin when he's mad. Do you have a magenta crayon?") Many Giants spent much of the week without power. Tom Canavan's excellent AP story provides even more details of a football team seeking shelter from the storm. Much of it will sound familiar to residents of New York and New Jersey.
Coughlin is realistic about the effect of Sandy on his players. "We're not denying what's going on. I mean, I think that's foolish … I think you do have to have a little bit of a mature attitude about these young men, their families and some of the circumstances they might be going through ... I'll try to do the best I can with that, but there's no avoiding what's happened here. Quite frankly, we don't want to. That's not our job. We realize this is a part of life. We've been struck by a blow by Mother Nature and we have to deal with it the best way we can."
Even NFL head coaches gain perspective from emergencies. So, as you ponder that Vegas line above, perhaps you should ponder a donation to hurricane relief with the same discretionary funds. The following is truly for entertainment purposes only.
Prediction: Steelers 20, Giants 14
Broncos at Bengals
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Broncos by 3½
Brandon Stokley returns to the scene of the "Immaculate Deflection" on Sunday. Back at the start of the 2009 season, with the Bengals leading 7-6 in the final seconds of the game, Kyle Orton threw a desperate pass to a blanketed Brandon Marshall. Defender Leon Hall tipped it into the air, and Stokley hauled it in and raced up the sideline for a game-winning touchdown.
Good heavens, that was only three years ago? The Broncos have undergone about 30 paradigm shifts since then. Marshall has played for two different teams. Josh McDaniels was a boy genius at that moment; the mason jars full of toenail clippings came later. The whole Tebow Epoch … watch a replay of Stokley's miracle TD and you half expect to see fedoras in the crowd shots and Studebakers in the parking lot. But it was three years ago.
The one constant is Stokley, who is not really a constant: He played for the Seahawks and Giants before returning to Denver this year. Do you remember Stokley's touchdown in Super Bowl XXXV? Remember all of those catches from Peyton Manning in Indy? Remember when Chuck Bednarik knocked Stokley unconscious and stood defiantly above his limp frame? Oh wait, that was Frank Gifford. Stokley must be the one causing the temporal distortions. He has even made Manning look five years younger lately.
Prediction: Broncos 28, Bengals 21
Dolphins at Colts
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Dolphins by 1½
One of these 4-3 teams could earn a wild-card berth, but both face a near-vertical climb. The Dolphins play the Patriots twice, plus the Seahawks and 49ers, in the second half. The Colts get the Texans twice, the Patriots in Foxboro, and the rejuvenated Lions in Detroit. Each team also has some upcoming soft spots, but the schedule math doesn't quite add up to 10 wins for either one, particularly the loser of this game. That means there will be a -- wait for it -- playoff atmosphere in Lucas Oil Stadium! Or to use a more current-but-grating analogy, this game has become a -- wait even longer for it -- Battleground State!
The Dolphins have the edge in this battleground, both on Sunday and for the long haul. They are much better defensively, have a more stable offensive line, and rate a slight edge at the skill positions, something they can rarely claim. Over the long haul, they have done more of the things they have to do to slip into the playoffs as a near-.500 wild card, such as beat opponents (Bengals, Raiders, Jets split) who may be scrambling for the same entrance. If the Dolphins win, I give them a 68.775 percent chance of making the playoffs, dropping to 40.625 percent if they lose. If the Colts win, I only give them a 48.225 percent chance, though that drops to 19.37462982 percent if they lose. Also, those numbers are completely made up.
If either team makes the playoffs, or both (less than 0.132746 percent chance), we will make a big deal of the rookie quarterback who led his team to the postseason. Andy Dalton and T.J. Yates will call the winner to congratulate him and tell him just where it gets them.
Prediction: Dolphins 23, Colts 13
Cardinals at Packers
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Packers by 12½
The Cardinals rushed seven times for nine yards last week. That was a franchise-low, which is saying something, since the franchise dates back to the days of 7-3 losses to the Dayton Triangles, when Paddy Driscoll and Arnie Horween might have had a hard time moving the football on any given afternoon after watching Al Capone's men gun down some uncooperative bootleggers in the middle of Racine Avenue.
The Cardinals ground game has also produced 20-for-43, 15-for-28 and 17-for-45 rushing performances, scattered among some more productive efforts, as well as a 182-yard game against the Bills, which we now know doesn't really count.
The Cardinals' running game is bad enough to make the Packers rushing attack look robust. Alex Green averages just 2.9 yards per carry, but the Packers stayed idle through the trade deadline because they are waiting for Cedric Benson (foot) to return and crank the yards-per-carry into the 3.3 range. Plus GM Ted Thompson prefers dumpster-diving for running backs. The Cardinals running game is not quite bad enough to make their passing attack look good, however, and that is not a precedent they hope to set.
Prediction: Packers 27, Cardinals 13
Bears at Titans
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Bears by 3½
The Bears roll out a season like this every few years. Their last was in 2010, when they reached the NFC Championship Game but lost to the Packers, who finished second in the division, a scenario that could play out this year. Before that came their 13-3 in 2006, maybe their 11-5 season in 2005, and their 13-3 season in 2001. The Bears defense suddenly becomes amazing in these seasons, even though the team makes minimal personnel changes or scheme adjustments. Their schedule gets a little soft and runny in places, easing their defense-first path into the playoffs.
Usually, the Bears are led by bad quarterbacks having fluky-competent years (Rex Grossman, Jim Miller) during these charmed seasons. This year, they are led by a talented quarterback having a weird season. Gutsy Jay Cutler is a more interesting character than Smokin' Jay Cutler, but Gutsy Jay is on pace for 18 interceptions and 47 sacks this year, Grossmanesque numbers that make this team look even more like the spiritual cousin of past Sudden Bears.
The Bears sustain these success spikes by beating the teams they're supposed to beat, and their defense will shut the Titans down easily. The only thing missing from the typical Bears narrative is a disproportionately important performance by return man Devin Hester. Don't change the channel when the Titans are punting this week.
Prediction: Bears 24, Titans 10
Panthers at Redskins
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Redskins by 3½
Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III sure are similar in many ways. They … wait a second, we've already done the "all dynamic young scramblers of a certain complexion look alike to some sportswriters" gag for these two, haven't we? Oh yes, it was back in Week 2, when the Saints faced the Panthers after facing the Redskins, and the kind of parallels that are never drawn when a team faces Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton back-to-back were carefully drafted between Newton and Griffin.
So what do these two quarterbacks really have in common? They both have receiving corps that often let them down. Neither can count on his secondary to protect a lead, though the Panthers and Redskins defensive front sevens are actually pretty solid. Both benefited from highly customized offenses in their rookie seasons, and you can use Newton as a cautionary fable for Griffin without sounding like you learned your cultural attitudes from 1970s Norman Lear sitcoms. An exemplary rookie season is just a first step, for both the quarterback and his franchise; both player and organization must grow. In Carolina, neither did. For a Redskins team that has been stuck in a decade-long adolescence, a win on Sunday must also be a learning experience.
Prediction: Redskins 23, Panthers 17
Bills at Texans
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Texans by 11½
Mario Williams returns to Houston this week, whether Houston likes it or not. Ex-teammate Antonio Smith says he plans to try to get under Mario Sunshine's skin ("I just want to see what happens," Smith said, sounding like the kid who just chucked three cherry bombs into a pottery kiln). Second-year right tackle Derek Newton is under the microscope as he prepares to block Williams ("It's not going to be -- hopefully -- a one-on-one battle all day," said offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who plans to double- and triple-team Williams as soon as other Bills defenders start getting knocked down by slight breezes.)
Williams even gave an interview to the Houston Chronicle in which he explained his reason for leaving to angry, confused Texans fans. (Loose paraphrase: "They. Offered. Me. A Hundred. Million. Freakin'. Dollars.") The Chronicle even has a "Will You Boo Mario?" survey. Perhaps we should be focusing on the 6-1 team with the clear path to the playoffs instead of the underachieving free agent who now plays for the worst defense in the NFL. Or maybe Houston just needs another sports distraction until the postseason. Look, on the basketball court: a big, fuzzy beard!
Prediction: Texans 34, Bills 21
Buccaneers at Raiders
4:05 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Call it the RBC effect: Teams look a lot better when they have Recently Beaten the Chiefs. Back-to-back 26-point efforts in victories over the Chiefs and Jaguars (plus a near-miss at upsetting the Falcons) make the Raiders look like they have a viable offense; but really, folks, it's Darren McFadden averaging 3.3 yards per carry and Carson Palmer throwing to tight ends.
Blowing out the Chiefs got the Buccaneers revved up for a close call against the Saints and a convincing win over the Vikings, but like the Raiders, their offense may be less than the sum of its parts, especially with All-Pro guard Carl Nicks injured. Both these teams are poised to be pesky spoilers in the second half. So what happens when they face each other with nothing to spoil? Probably a lot of 3.3-yard runs and passes to tight ends.
Prediction: Raiders 26, Buccaneers 20
Ravens at Browns
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Ravens by 3½
Critics have been questioning Joe Flacco for years, but he often rebounds from bad games with one or two outstanding ones, in much the same way Alex Smith earned a temporary cease fire with his 18-for-19 performance on Monday night. So what does all of our criticism make us, John Harbaugh? A bunch of "cluck-cluck-clucking buggin'-out chickens?" "Moo moo mooing cheese-eatin' Guernseys?" C'mon, coach, your brother cannot be the only outsider beatnik poet in the family. You don't want to wind up the Rob Ryan of your clan, do you? So c'mon: Your team and your quarterback lack confidence. Call us a name! How 'bout "Bray-bray-braying shot-out donkeys!" Aw, you are no fun.
Prediction: Ravens 24, Browns 13
Vikings at Seahawks
4:05 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Seahawks by 5
The Seahawks have a beaten-up receiving corps and a secondary that, while great, proved by their words and deeds against the Lions that they still have some growing up to do. But Pete Carroll's biggest worry this week is Jared Allen. "He's a war daddy," Carroll said of the Vikings pass rusher. Allen showed up for practice on Halloween looking like he wanted to make love, not war: Leslie Frazier described the blonde wig and skinny jeans as "some hippie outfit," but Allen said he was going for "emo." In short, there's a long-haired emo-hippie dude in skinny jeans hanging around Seattle right now who is called War Daddy, which should cause as much excitement among record labels as football fans.
Prediction: Seahawks 17, Vikings 14
Lions at Jaguars
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Lions by 3½
(Transcript from recent evening news broadcast on WEAK Jacksonville, an affiliate of the DuMont Network:)
PERKY FEMALE NEWSCASTER: … The area woman said the alligator could keep the prosthetic leg, she just wants her henna tattoos back. And now over to Sports.
GOOFY SPORTS PERSONALITY: Hey, I have big news from Jaguars headquarters. Could the Jaguars land Tim Tebow in a trade with the Jets? One unnamed source said it is possible!
PERKY: That's amazing, Goof. Tebow's return to Florida would be the biggest sports scoop of the year. Do you have any details?
GOOFY: Er, no details yet. Just a reliable unnamed source who can confirm that there is speculation that the Jaguars and Jets are considering a trade. Imagine Tebow and Maurice Jones-Drew in the same backfield in 2013! Pretty slick, right?
PERKY: Yes, that would certainly be an exciting backfield. Do we have any official statements from either team? In fact, does Jets headquarters even have power and Internet right now? And wouldn't a trade leave the Jets without a backup quarterback at a time when their starter is struggling?
GOOFY: No, neither team has commented, and there is no logical way to make this deal work. But … Tebow! In Florida! It would be so transcendently wonderful. Can't you see it? People would care about sportscasts again! Kids would recognize me in shopping centers, like they used to when I hosted that show with Keenan McCardell. My precious book contract … Perk, do you realize that "Raw Teal: Straight Dope and Hard Truths from the Jaguars Preseason Color Guy" would be attractive to major publishers again! Tebow WILL come back! He MUST! If we all hold our breath together, he will have to come and save us all.
PERKY: There you have it: Tebow to Jacksonville, unfounded speculation or wish-fulfillment fantasy? WEAK wants your opinion: vote on our website or tweet us your thoughts while ol' Goofy takes his anti-anxiety medication and gives us the latest on how the Jaguars' decision to trade Mike Thomas to the Lions four days before facing the Lions cannot possibly backfire.
Prediction: Lions 20, Jaguars 14
Eagles at Saints
8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Saints by 3
The Eagles changed defensive coordinators after six games in which their offense essentially rolled the ball toward the feet of approaching defenders and dared their defense to hold the opponent under 20 points. Then, after the readjusted defense allowed 16-play, 8-play, 13-play and 12-play scoring drives (plus an easy long touchdown, which is an innovative way of keeping the time-of-possession unbalance in check), Andy Reid hemmed and hawed about changing quarterbacks, settling on one more week of Michael Vick.
Reid appears to be applying the wrong solutions to the wrong problems; you get the impression that Reid spent Hurricane Sandy laying rock salt on his driveway, and that he will spend winter blizzard season fretting over his sump pump. You also get the impression that he will have plenty of time to do so.
Prediction: Saints 28, Eagles 17