The waiting is the hardest part as the NFL enters Week 10. Bears cornerback Charles Tillman is waiting on a new baby, and neither the Texans nor President Obama knows what to expect while Tillman and "the wife" are expecting. In the meantime, Bud Adams redecorated Titans headquarters, Rex Ryan dipped into the suggestion box, DeMarco Murray hopped around on one foot, Aldon Smith became a superhero and Tom Coughlin acted goofy at a press conference. Yes, Tom Coughlin acted goofy at a press conference. Waiting for the Falcons to lose? Keep waiting. Tillman's little peanut is due very soon, but Lowdown arrives right now.
Falcons at Saints
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Falcons by 1
If your upset senses are tingling about this matchup, so are everyone else's. Just check out that spread. Undefeated teams are rarely just one-point favorites, even on the road, against 3-5 opponents. This game opened as a pick 'em, but the spread has been sliding; check local listings before calling your cousin's coworker's old college roommate if you are reading this 11 minutes before kickoff.
Why are your instincts - and those of thousands of other fans - telling you to expect an upset? Here are several reasons that idea may be rattling around your head:
The Falcons are due to lose: That's just the Gambler's Fallacy, the most vile of probabilistic demons, sitting on your right shoulder and whispering nonsense in your ear. Ignore her.
The Falcons always struggle in the Superdome. This has some merit; the Falcons are 1-7 in their last eight trips to New Orleans, and divisional road games are always difficult. Of course, going back 10 years to establish an NFL trend is always dangerous. You miss little details, like Hurricane Katrina. The most famous Falcons loss in New Orleans was the Superdome reopening in 2006, when Green Day, U2 and a rapturous crowd rattled Michael Vick en route to a 23-3 win; Vick still looked pretty rattled in the Superdome on Monday night, but most of the other principal players in that saga are long gone. Kurt Kittner started the first game of the streak for the Falcons. You get the idea.
The Falcons are not as good as their record; the Saints are not as bad as their record. We have covered this territory before. The Falcons are not the 1972 Dolphins of our grainy NFL Films fantasies. But they are a 12- or 13- win team. Picking them to lose just because they will eventually lose brings us right back to the numerical demon from two paragraphs ago.
As for the Saints, Football Outsiders ranks them seventh in the NFL in offense and 30th in defense. But remember that they ranked seventh with a healthy Darren Sproles (broken hand), who filled an irreplaceable niche in their offense. Without him, they are still dangerous on offense but will not be able to score enough to keep pace with their defense. The final score of Monday Night's game was misleading. The Eagles ran straight down the field on the Saints defense, then suffered Vick Cramps in the red zone. The Saints would have lost -- or at least been trapped in a 51-50 shootout -- against any team that wasn't busily slamming its head into the big red self-destruct button.
Monday night's performance may explain why the line has slowly slid to make the Saints bigger underdogs. You may still remain unconvinced. Just remember that while the Saints may rank seventh in offense, the Falcons rank eighth, and all of their weapons are healthy. That 1-7 streak is likely to end, not because it's "due," but because this isn't a coin flip, and the better team has a better chance of winning.
Prediction: Falcons 36, Saints 31.
Texans at Bears
8:20 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Some random thoughts on a matchup between two outstanding defenses, a meeting of two likely playoff teams, a rare battle between franchises that have only met twice before (with the Texans winning both times):
Baby Blues. Bears cornerback Charles Tillman was expected to miss this game for the birth of his child. Tillman forced four fumbles against the Titans last week. You have to admire a guy who does a little extra when he knows he will miss work. Then again, conscientiousness can go too far. Tillman said midweek that he plans to play if nature accommodates the Bears schedule. "The wife is due any day, so hopefully this baby can stay in until after the game on Sunday," Tillman told Chicago radio. The wife may not be so excited about that. The bundle of joy arrives Monday, no matter what, but babies have a habit of not "staying in," so stay tuned.
Tillman's nickname is "Peanut." It's awkward when men with juvenile nicknames have children; when daddy is "Pooh Bear," what's a child to name her stuffed animals? Tillman's daughter (ultrasound spoiler alert) may be doomed for a life as "Little Peanut," which is at least better than "this baby." There are worse fates, as Camden Jack Cutler will attest when he reaches middle school. Tillman should probably be Mister Peanut now. After forcing four fumbles in a game, you can wear a top hat, tails and a monocle, and no one will laugh at you. "The wife" might find it fitting.
O Captain, My Captain. The Texans named J.J. Watt a captain for Sunday night's game. Doesn't it seem like Watt should already be a captain? But he is only in his second season, so this promotion is actually a little early. Watt has had such a marvelous series of games, going back to last year's playoffs, that it feels like we have gone from getting to know him to celebrating him to overexposing him to overrating him to taking him for granted, skipping the messy business of appreciating his accomplishments. The news cycles need to slow a bit; Watt's captaincy feels like part of that "backlash to the backlash" we heard so much about on CNN this week, but that may be the caffeine talking.
Watt and Tillman are competitors for Defensive Player of the Year. If he misses Sunday, Tillman may have to settle for Father of the Year, which is a worthy consolation prize.
Partisanship. President Obama said the Bears have the "best defense in the league right now" during a halftime interview for Monday Night Football. You probably missed it, unless you have such an insanely high tolerance for pre-election politics, Chris Berman and Michael Vick interceptions that you could train CIA operatives to withstand torture. Football Outsiders agrees with the POTUS (the Bears rank first in defensive DVOA, the Texans second), or perhaps it's the other way around. Either way, Jim Harbaugh cannot be pleased by the endorsement.
Prediction. Both teams play outstanding defense, but the Texans are much better at taking care of the ball. An interception or strip-sack will provide the margin for victory. Tillman will be a daddy off the field, Watt will be a daddy on the field, the White House will remain Bears country and the Texans might as well get a jump on printing those playoff tickets.
Prediction: Texans 22, Bears 20
Jets at Seahawks
4:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Seahawks by 7
Scheduling the Jets' bye for the week before the election was cruel punishment by the NFL. The Jets' bye is supposed to be a one-week reprieve from inane rhetoric and angry nonsense, a reprieve we need more than ever right now. At least the Jets are facing one of the dwindling number of teams they have no beef with. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman will say something about being the best cornerback in the NFL by Monday morning, Antonio Cromartie will respond and we'll need that little Bronco Bama girl to start crying again to shut them both up.
The Jets spent the bye week dealing with Hurricane Sandy (several players were without power for much of the week) and cutting a slot into the top of Ye Olde Suggestion Box in search of ways to improve the team that do not involve acquiring new players or doing anything remotely different. "We got a bunch of suggestions. I hope they're good," Rex Ryan said. If it took a full offseason to come up with Tim Tebow, Under-qualified Personal Protector and Unused Goal Line Specialist; Joe McKnight, Defender for a Week; and Antonio Cromartie, Random Fly Route Runner, the brainstorms the coaches had by candlelight during a hurricane must be chocolate chip gold.
This will be the first NFL game to be played in a state that has legalized non-prescription marijuana; attendance is estimated at 1.7 million. Folks, the new laws passed in Washington and Colorado have not legally shaken out yet, so please don't get any higher before Seahawks games than you get before any other NFL game, which is admittedly pretty gosh-darned high for some of the tailgaters I pass on the way into stadiums.
This landmark game also features two coaches whose attitudes on legalization probably veer closer to Timothy Leary's than Tom Coughlin's. Neither team's playoff hopes are dead, but the Jets are on the outside looking in. You don't need to have a joint to enjoy a low-scoring game between a run-oriented defensive powerhouse and a visitor that thinks it's one, but it'd be a lot cooler if you did.
Prediction: Seahawks 20, Jets 16
Giants at Bengals
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Giants by 4
Tom Coughlin told reporters this week that he spent time with Eli Manning during the team's Tuesday off day going over ways to break the quarterback's recent slump. Coughlin re-implemented one of Eli's favorite passing drills (full speed one-on-one passing drills with starting receivers facing starting defenders, not practice squadders), and the quarterback said the drill helped him reestablish timing with his receivers and make adjustments to the defense.
Coughlin later leaned forward and adopted a conspiratorial tone. "The one thing that nobody has picked up on, which is kind of interesting, is you don't get any continuity offensively if you don't get any first downs!" he whispered with a sardonic twinkle in his eyes. "We haven't had any first downs in two weeks! Make some first downs!"
Coughlin taking suggestions from his veterans is not new. Coughlin acting silly during press conferences is. The explanation for the former is simple: Coughlin, while still stern, has been more of a mentor and manager than a dictator for more than five years now. The reason for the latter is unknown. If he starts hanging out with Diane Sawyer, though, it's time to be alarmed.
Prediction: Giants 27, Bengals 21
Titans at Dolphins
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Dolphins by 7
The walls of Titans headquarters are usually decorated with photos of the previous game's highlights. This week, according to The Tennessean, the walls were blank. Bud Adams was on the warpath all week, and he may have ordered the walls emptied in anticipation of a move -- not to Los Angeles, but to an apartment downtown while the franchise gets its head together. He may also plan to redecorate exclusively in huge murals of his frown. It's not like there were no highlights at all from last week's loss to the Bears. All of these highlights were wall-worthy:
J'Marcus Webb's end-zone penalty: Hey, a safety is a safety. And Webb deserves to hang on someone's wall somewhere. His own quarterback will only do it if taxidermy is involved.
Matt Hasselbeck's horse-collar tackle: Hasselbeck was fined for his post-interception rodeo performance. Horse-collar tackles should be legal for quarterbacks over 35 years old. Actually, that's a bad idea: Fran Tarkenton would run around the country horse-collaring random strangers on the street.
Chris Johnson's 80-yard touchdown to cut the Bears lead to 31 points in the fourth quarter: The caption could read "This is all I do now."
Come to think of it, the photo blackout may not be a bad idea. The Titans are just a few weeks removed from wins over the Steelers and Lions, and a victory over the Dolphins would prove that they still deserve mention among the AFC bantamweights. A loss is more likely, and if Adams gets any angrier, the names above player lockers will be replaced with signs reading THIS SPACE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK.
Prediction: Dolphins 24, Titans 13
Cowboys at Eagles
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Cowboys by 1
DeMarco Murray has almost completely recovered from last month's foot injury. He returned to practice on a limited basis on Thursday, and will probably see action on Sunday. Jason Garrett played it safe early in the week by making the injury-prone back pass a rigorous battery of tests. "He has to be able to do different things," Garrett said before clearing Murray. "He has to be able to 10 times go up and down on his toes. Then, he has to be able to hop on his foot by itself without any pain. Then, he has to be able to jog. All that kind of stuff." In other words, the Jerry Jones Loyalty Test plus the Cowboys Receiver Sobriety Test equals the Demarco Murray Foot Strength Test.
Even with Murray's stabilizing presence, this game will devolve into a back-and-forth battle of 80-yard drives that end with 100-yard pick-six touchdowns. The winning team will hear that they only won because the losing team did more to lose, which is usually unfair criticism, but not always.
Prediction: Eagles 29, Cowboys 25
Chargers at Buccaneers
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Buccaneers by 3
The Chargers Stickum controversy has been settled. The Chargers were actually using towels provided by Gorilla Grodd, the super-intelligent mind-controlling ape villain from DC Comics. The towels made pass-catching easier but robbed Norv Turner of free will (insert joke here); the Broncos saw through the ruse because Von Miller's glasses have "They Live" powers, allowing him to see things as they really are. (Miller also knows that Chargers banners contain the subliminal message "approve public stadium financing.")
Oops, sorry: The towels are supplied by Gorilla Gold, whose website shows an ape squeezing a towel as if it is wringing every last drop of self-determination from the brain of a befuddled coach. You can understand the confusion. Several teams apparently use these towels, but the league fined the Chargers $20,000 anyway, then busted a tail light on the team bus and gave them a ticket for that, too. Sticky towels will no longer be allowed on the field during games; no word yet on whether players will be allowed to wrap a lollipop in a Kleenex and use that instead.
Freed from the mind control, or whatever, Turner took a moment to extol the virtues of Buccaneers rookie sensation Doug Martin. "He's got that thing that some of the great running backs that I've been around have had, that size where they're compact enough to get in behind the line where they become hard to find,'' Turner said. "I don't like to compare guys, but there's no question there are things he does that are Emmitt (Smith)-like.'' Turner can suddenly remember that he was a successful coordinator for the Cowboys 20 years ago. That may be the best outcome of this pathetically bonkers sticky towel scandal for the Chargers.
Prediction: Buccaneers 24, Chargers 17
Rams at 49ers
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: 49ers by 11
Aldon Smith did not get jumped outside a Missouri restaurant during his bye week. That is his version of events, and while there was a television story, a police report and a Twitter rumor indicating that something happened which involved someone fitting Smith's description, no one is talking. A similar incident occurred in July, when Smith was stabbed at a party, apparently by no one, and no one saw it.
The explanation for all of this can be found in the new CW series "Arrow," based upon the comic book character Green Arrow. On the show, Arrow (who looks distractingly like Tom Brady, but that's a different preview) throws elaborate parties as alibis for his superheroic derring-do, a habit that brings to mind Smith's stabby summer shindig. Arrow is also the worst superhero ever at hiding his secret identity. Five episodes in, his bodyguard figured him out, and his girlfriend, sister, mother, the district attorney, a detective, and the series' uber-villain all have major suspicions, which destroys the whole concept of having a secret identity. But Arrow, like Smith, creates just enough confusion to make everyone forget or drop charges until next week's caper. Aldon Smith is clearly a superhero, and "hard-partying sack specialist" is just the cover story that allows him to travel around America delivering ninja beatings to bad guys.
In a final development, Brandon Jacobs did not realize until halfway through "The Amazing Race" that last Sunday was the 49ers' bye week.
Prediction: 49ers 30, Rams 16
Lions at Vikings
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Lions by 1
Percy Harvin's ankle is sprained in three different places, but the Lions are preparing as if Harvin will play. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said that Harvin made "a lot of progress" with the injury and may return to practice by Friday; Jim Schwartz noted that Adrian Peterson made a semi-miraculous recovery from an ACL tear in the offseason. The Mayo Clinic is only about a 90-minute drive from the Metrodome, and if they are holding out on some high-tech healing "purple ray," they had better start sharing soon. Unfortunately, that is probably where the Favre Clones are being grown. This concludes the "DC Comics References" portion of the Lowdown.
Prediction: Vikings 24, Lions 22
Bills at Patriots
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Patriots by 12
Sporting News published a poll of 100 NFL players ranking the most overrated coaches in the NFL. Rex Ryan finished first, Bill Belichick finished second. Ryan made a joke of the ranking, saying he was thrilled to beat Belichick in something. Belichick does not condescend to address such matters. Some Boston writers, of course, reacted as if someone called Fenway Park a dilapidated dump, which is precisely the point of such rankings.
Belichick is one of the 10-to-15 greatest coaches in history and one of the three or four best in the NFL right now by the measure of anyone not prone to "he videotapes me while I sleep" paroxysms of paranoia. Under the circumstances, it is hard to overrate such a person. The Sporting News list only makes sense if you consult the New Standard Dictionary of Sportstalk Usage:
Overrated (adj): great but unpopular, unlikable, or long-established. Used to take vague, unsubstantiated potshots at successful teams, coaches, or players, often specifically to generate controversy or talking points.
By that definition, Belichick is overrated. It's Ryan that does not belong.
The real takeaway from this exercise: It is more interesting to write about an anonymous survey than to write about the Bills.
Prediction: Patriots 38, Bills 24
Broncos at Panthers
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Broncos by 3 ½
Peyton Manning had some nice things to say about the Panthers at this week's press conference: "I guess their defense has improved more than anybody's in the past few weeks … I think their record is misleading to the kind of team they have." Let's translate that from the Peyton Bland dialect into Standard English: "The Panthers may be a 2-6 team with a defense that cannot protect a lead in the fourth quarter, but they play like a 3-5 team with a defense that can sort of protect a lead in the fourth quarter."
John Fox returns to Carolina on Sunday for the first time since the Panthers fired him after the 2010 season. Fox's return will allow Panthers fans to remember a Super Bowl appearance, then a long era in which the team was mediocre in a dull and professional way, in contrast to their current state of dramatic, spectacular mediocrity.
Prediction: Broncos 24, Panthers 21
Raiders at Ravens
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Ravens by 9
Penalties are the big story in this matchup, and the Raiders are not the primary perpetrators for once. Edward Lee of the Baltimore Sun outlined the Ravens' problems in a Thursday article: The team is second in the NFL with 66 penalties (the Redskins have more), and have committed an alarming number of personal fouls. Bernard Pollard, who has three roughness fouls this season and has played most of his career like some bloodthirsty rabid woodpecker, defends some of the fouls, like the incident where running back Bernard Pierce kicked a Browns player who had just punched him in the groin. "And you expect him not to react?" Pollard asked. Well, no, not when you put it like that.
John Harbaugh wants to stem the penalty tide, but Harbaugh has been flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct twice himself. Terrell Suggs claimed this week that he was responsible for one of the flags: He was expressing his opinions to an official on the sideline while standing with Harbaugh, and the official misinterpreted who was delivering the criticism. Harbaugh has enlisted help to keep him from cussing his way into a 15-yard foul. "I put a couple players in charge during the game of keeping an eye on me," Harbaugh said. Make sure they aren't ventriloquists like Suggs, Coach.
Prediction: Ravens 27, Raiders 17
Chiefs at Steelers
8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Steelers by 13
Romeo Crennel the head coach fired Romeo Crennel the defensive coordinator last week, proof that you cannot coach the Chiefs for more than a few months without developing a multiple personality disorder. Linebackers coach Gary Gibbs takes over as the defensive signal caller, while Crennel vows to devote more attention to an offense that has enjoyed the benefit of his neglect. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's run-oriented system is designed to help the Chiefs protect leads -- that there is no evidence whatsoever to back up this claim is at the root of the Chiefs' problems -- but Crennel's extra attention may help the Chiefs play from behind with greater urgency. When Crennel the delegator, Crennel the defensive mastermind and Crennel the offensive meddler meet for coffee in the offseason, they will have a lot to talk about.
At least the condition is temporary. The various and sundry Todd Haleys now appear to be back on speaking terms, with their quarterback and each other.
Prediction: Steelers 27, Chiefs 13