Have you ever wished you could go back in time? Some NFL teams do. The Chargers would gladly time travel to halftime of their Week Six meeting with the Broncos, when the AFC West was their oyster and they had not yet gotten shelled. The Colts would like to go back to the good old days of their Patriots rivalry, though tomorrow is not as bad as it seems in Indy. Robert Griffin harkened back this week to a February conversation with Andy Reid, though he didn’t sound like he had any regrets, and the Cowboys just want to get out of the Garrett Causality Loop that has snared them for three years. Aaron Rodgers wants his old left tackle back, and the Chiefs want to repeat their touchdown celebrations forever, but no two teams want to rewind quite like the Ravens and Steelers. No Ray Lewis, Troy Polamalu or Ben Roethlisberger? No problem! Lowdown sells out no good rivalry before its time.
Ravens at Steelers
8:20 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Ravens by 3 ½
The Ravens ran up the score with fake field goals against the Raiders. Ben Roethlisberger suffered shoulder and rib injuries a day later, so the Ravens will not have to face him. Sounds like karma needs a hard reboot and a virus scan.
Byron Leftwich takes over for Big Ben, continuing a proud Steelers history of employing backup quarterbacks who emerge from a climate-controlled vault with dilated pupils, asking who the president is and whether bellbottoms are still in style. Leftwich started his last game in Week Three of 2009, when he led the Buccaneers to a 24-0 loss to the Giants. Leftwich replaces Charlie “Seven Games Per Decade” Batch as Roethlisberger’s primary backup, though Batch remains on the Steelers as a third stringer/union shop steward/guy for Leftwich to play pinochle with.
Leftwich is best known for his trebuchet-like throwing motion. He winds up like he is pitching to Roy Hobbs, and receivers often go from open to covered to retired in the time it takes for him to complete his elaborate pre-throw ritual. Some dinosaurs had tiny mini-brains halfway down their backs to allow nerve signals to move along their huge bodies more quickly. If Leftwich had a tiny mini-brain in his elbow, he would be a Hall of Famer.
Ravens-Steelers is arguably the NFL’s best rivalry right now. Both teams have been playoff-caliber for several years, they often meet in the postseason after battling twice in the regular season, the games are usually close and always brutal, the roll call of future Hall of Famers is impressive when everyone is healthy. With Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Ray Lewis all out, this game will feel less like a great rivalry than a fading rivalry. Like Patriots-Colts, however, it may be too early to bury the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, especially when so many AFC middleweights are bowing down to allow both of them into the playoffs again. Plus, it’s not like the Cowboys and Redskins are delivering the goods, rivalry-wise.
The Ravens have faced Steelers honor guard quarterbacks before. They beat the Batch-led Steelers 17-14 in Pittsburgh early in the 2010 season, but they needed a fourth-quarter Joe Flacco touchdown to do it. That’s what happens when a quarterback who just got his arm back from “American Restoration” faces a team that locks its offense in the hotel safe when traveling. Something similar will happen on Sunday.
Prediction: Ravens 20, Steelers 17
Chargers at Broncos
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Broncos by 8 ½
The Broncos trailed the Chargers 24-0 at halftime on Oct. 14. Rumors that Peyton Manning had a “dead arm” were swirling (he must have passed that ailment along at a family function), and the Broncos were poised to go 2-4 while the Chargers climbed to 4-2.
Let’s freeze the game tape just when Philip Rivers drops to pass early in the third quarter, Elvis Dumervil bearing down on his right, at the moment before the ball flutters from his hand and skitters down the field to a waiting Tony Carter. This is the turning point of the season, folks. This is your life, Norv Turner. The Broncos have not scored fewer than 30 points in a game since that third quarter. The Chargers have rediscovered self-destruction. The NFL season pivoted the moment Dumervil beat that blocker and grazed Rivers’ arm.
The Broncos’ upcoming schedule includes two Chiefs games, plus the Raiders and Browns. That’s 10 wins before they have to do anything moderately challenging, like win this game, or beat the Bucs in Denver. The Chargers face all three competitive AFC North teams after this game, plus in-their-weight-class bumblers like the Panthers and Jets. That’s seven losses, even if you factor in Byron Leftwich and the Ravens flying Failure Airlines to San Diego. The Broncos essentially clinch the division if they win this game, and they probably do it if they don’t.
If only the Chargers could pause their DVR and enjoy that halftime forever. But then, Turner would be their coach forever, as opposed to the real world, in which it only feels that way.
Prediction: Broncos 34, Chargers 24.
Colts at Patriots
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Patriots by 10
Let’s take a moment to lament the death of the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady Patriots-Colts rivalry. Annnnd … done.
Now, let’s forget the quarterbacks and celebrate the rivalry itself. Two of the last four Patriots-Colts games have not featured a Peyton-Brady duel, but they were still excellent games. The Colts forced the Matt Cassel-led Patriots to settle for field goals after several 13- to 15-play drives in 2008, but the Patriots controlled the ball for so long that Manning barely saw the field. The 18-15 Colts win came down to a failed two-point conversion by Kevin Faulk and a 52-yard fourth-quarter Adam Vinatieri field goal.
Last year, the Patriots romped out to a 31-3 lead against the 0-12 Colts, but a pair of Huskies (Connecticut alums Dan Orlovsky and Donald Brown) attempted a dogsled rescue, scoring three touchdowns against a Patriots defense that still freezes up at the worst possible times.
So Andrew Luck-versus-Brady could be a changing of the guard, or a reaffirmation of Patriots power, but it is not yesterday’s news. As bad as the Patriots defense has looked at times, the Colts have used recent games against the Browns, Titans and Jaguars to hide a secret: theirs is much worse.
Prediction: Patriots 38, Colts 28
Packers at Lions
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Packers by 3
Clay Matthews is out this week, with Dezman Moses filling in at outside linebacker. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga (hip) was placed on injured reserve, so T.J. Lang will move from guard to tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith will replace Lang. Charles Woodson and Greg Jennings are still hurt, and the depth chart is suddenly populated with names like Greg Van Roten and Vic So’oto, the latter of whom was an alien on the TV series “Babylon 5.”
No wonder Aaron Rodgers is lobbying to bring back old buddy Chad Clifton. "I haven't talked to Cliff in a while, but I would guess he might be able to be lured from Nashville," Rodgers said on his radio show. "I love Cliff, so I would never not want to see him up here.” Clifton was released early in the 2011 season, and despite what Rodgers doesn’t not want, the former left tackle may not be all that easy to lure from Nashville:
RODGERS: Hey, Cliff ol’ buddy. It’s me, Aaron.
CLIFTON: Oh, hey. We haven’t talked in a while. I guess you are trying to lure me somewhere.
RODGERS: Well, now that you mention it, Bryan got hurt, and we are juggling linemen this week, and we are playing the Lions …
CLIFTON: The Lions? The team whose linemen like to stomp on players lying on the ground in Thanksgiving games? You are calling me out of retirement so I can feel Ndamukong Suh’s cleats digging into my cheekbone the moment I am slow to get up?
RODGERS: Hey man, it is either your cheekbone or mine. Also, do you have Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila’s cell number? We are short on pass rushers and … Cliff? Hello? Hello?
Prediction: Lions 28, Packers 27
Cardinals at Falcons
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Falcons by 10 ½
Michael Turner’s paltry rushing production has spawned a week of chicken-or-egg philosophizing. Is Turner making his offensive line look bad, or is the line making Turner look bad? Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said that “on the majority of Mike Turner’s runs in the game the other day, he had no chance.” Koetter should know, but it begs the question of why Turner accomplished little on the minority of runs where he had a chance.
Does Turner need more carries, or does he need to do more with the carries he has? LaDainian Tomlinson stuck up for Turner and espoused the rhythm method on SiriusXM NFL radio. “It takes rhythm,” Tomlinson said. “You have to run the football on a consistent basis to be good at it.” But what if you are consistently running for 1.2 yards per carry, as Turner was? By the time you get enough carries to establish rhythm, your team has punted nine times.
The fact that the 30-year old workhorse is running out of oats, while obviously a main part of the problem, is taking a long time to sink in.
While Turner watchers contemplate causality, other Falcons followers revel in the knowledge that last week’s loss to the Saints “took the pressure off.” Yes, the Falcons no longer feel the crushing stress of going undefeated, a feat no one on the planet expected them to accomplish, and they can now concentrate on the relaxing task of ending a four-year stretch of heartbreaking playoff losses, which will determine their legacy and professional futures. Forgive them if they don’t all crack open a cold one and wriggle their toes at once.
Prediction: Falcons 24, Cardinals 20
Buccaneers at Panthers
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
The Buccaneers, Vikings, and Seahawks represent the NFC’s fifth column. They are quietly mounting playoff charges while the Eagles and Panthers liquefy and the Cowboys have the same season they have had for three years while trying to pretend it’s something new. The Seahawks are the best of the fifth column teams, but they are on bye, as are the Vikings, whose late schedule (Packers and Bears twice each, at Texans) will knock them out of the field. That leaves us to talk about the Bucs, who also have a tough late schedule (Falcons twice, at Broncos), but have built a lot of infrastructure while we were busy watching Cam Newton grimace.
The Buccaneers are tied for third in the league in takeaway differential: 19 turnovers forced, eight given up. Josh Freeman has picked up his career where it left off in 2010. He spreads the ball around well now that he has players to spread it to, and playing quarterback is much easier when Doug Martin is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and contributing to the passing game, in contrast to LeGarrette Blount’s one 20-yard highlight run, three missed blocks, one fumble, one dropped pass, two excuse stat lines from last year. As for the defense, the Buccaneers are now playing it.
Even if the fifth column fails, they are sending a message to the NFC’s diva teams: Keep strutting and fretting, and your hour on the stage will come to a sudden end.
Prediction: Buccaneers 27, Panthers 17
Jaguars at Texans
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Texans by 16 ½
The Jaguars are thinking of switching to a no-huddle offense full-time this week after using the up-tempo attack for much of the Colts game and emerging with a 27-10 loss. (This is the Jaguars segment, folks: You just have to let the staggering illogic wash over you.)
Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union spoke at length with Jaguars quarterback coach Greg Olson and provides a fine in-depth summary of the no-huddle offense. To summarize: Blaine Gabbert, Olson and the coaches prepare a bank of plays during the week, Olson provides suggestions via headset as the teams line up, Gabbert reads the defense at the line and makes a one-word (give or take) play call that provides all the information his team needs, the ball is snapped and Gabbert throws an incomplete pass five yards over the head of Laurent Robinson along the sideline.
This is the last “easy” game for the Texans before a tough three-week road trip that takes them to Detroit, Tennessee (the Titans cannot make their own plans but can sure toss a monkey wrench into yours) and New England. The trap-game potential is there, so the Texans have to be pleased with the Jaguars’ plan to give Gabbert more responsibility. With the Jaguars in a hurry to get off the field, Texans defenders will have ample time to pack.
Prediction: Texans 27, Jaguars 10
Eagles at Redskins
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Redskins by 3 ½
Robert Griffin III and the other, lesser Redskins were on bye last week. Did you miss him? You probably did not notice that he was gone, thanks to all of those Gatorade commercials with the creepy “Flashdance” vibe. Given the choice of watching Griffin play football and watching him splatter sweat all over the camera with a coquettish head whip, football wins hands-down, even if we are forced to watch the Eagles as well.
Speaking of the Eagles, Griffin said on a conference call this week that he spoke with Andy Reid during the scouting combine and that Reid was “very interested” in him. Too much can be made of this: Everyone was interested in Griffin. But disappointed Eagles fans can dream up retroactive trades – Michael Vick, Nnamdi Asomugha, two first-round picks and the right to hit Asante Samuel in the face with a custard pie to the Rams for the Griffin pick and the stuff Dick Vermeil left in the supply closet – and imagine what could have been. With Griffin, the Eagles would be the Redskins: 3-6, with a veteran coach taking heat, a rookie under center, and an uncertain plan for how to move forward. Yep, things would be totally different.
Prediction: Eagles 26, Redskins 20
Jets at Rams
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Rams by 3 ½
Teammates are ripping Tim Tebow in the most unsurprising development since mayonnaise spoiling on a hot day. There will be five new developments in this story by the time you read it – Shonn Greene may just have to crack that false-tooth cyanide pill in mid press conference – so there is little point in elaborating. The question making the talk radio rounds this week was: “Has the Jets offense gotten so bad that they should consider starting Tebow?” The correct answer: “If so, then we should not be talking about them.”
The Rams tied the 49ers last week despite playing without two important rookies: Cornerback Janoris Jenkins and receiver Chris Givens were suspended for the game by Jeff Fisher. The reasons for the suspensions were not disclosed, but Jenkins left college with a reputation that suggests he was a pirate in a past life, and Fisher didn’t graduate from the Young Tom Coughlin Discipline Academy. Jenkins and Givens were back at practice this week, but Fisher is making them regain his trust (and their roles), perhaps realizing that rookies who aren’t reined in early get into serious trouble, or squander their potential, or at best end up ripping the backup quarterback for an awful team in the newspaper instead of preparing for a playoff run.
Prediction: Rams 19, Jets 13
Browns at Cowboys
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Cowboys by 9
Year Three of Year One of the Jason Garrett era finds the Cowboys retracing their steps for the third time, with essentially the same personnel, in search of the magic car keys that will start their engine. November is the time when the Garrett Cowboys cobble together a little run, like their 3-1 stretch in 2010 (which actually went from mid-November to early December) and their 4-0 streak last year. These hot streaks neatly coincide with Giants slumps, creating the illusion that the Cowboys are somehow improving or gaining ground, but if you look carefully at the games themselves, many of them look like last week’s 38-23 win over the Eagles: bumbling slap-fests disguised as prize fights. The Cowboys will win Sunday, too, and a fresh streak could save Garrett’s job, allowing us to enjoy Year Four of Year One next year.
Prediction: Cowboys 24, Browns 12
Bengals at Chiefs
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Bengals by 3 ½
Dwayne Bowe scored an apparent touchdown on a screen pass to take the lead against the Steelers in the third quarter on Monday night. He taunted a Steelers defender on the way into the end zone by holding out the football (the defender was about one foot away and could have gone all Don Beebe on Bowe), then pump-faked throwing the ball into the crowd and preened into a television camera. (Hilariously, ESPN refused to use that camera’s footage). Bowe could have been flagged for taunting, but a holding penalty called back the touchdown, anyway.
Later in the quarter, Byron Leftwich threw the most obvious incomplete pass ever to be ruled a fumble. There was no whistle, so Justin Houston picked the ball up and ran into the end zone for another potential lead-changing touchdown. Houston and several Chiefs defenders engaged in a swaying end-zone dance that was more sultry than funky, definitely creepy, and obviously illegal. The play was ruled an incompletion, the refs gave the Steelers 15 free yards and a first down, and Romeo Crennel has put his foot down about end zone tomfoolery, a problem which doesn’t come up much for the Chiefs, anyway.
The moral of the story is that the Chiefs went eight games without taking the lead against an opponent, and when they finally did, it felt so good that they wanted to keep doing it over and over again. Crennel can foster humility by assigning a water boy to race into the end zone and hold up a sign to the scoring player that reads: “Remember, you still play for the Chiefs.”
Prediction: Bengals 23, Chiefs 20
Saints at Raiders
4:05 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Saints by 4 ½
Raiders safeties Matt Giordano (concussion) and Tyvon Smith (neck) had not returned to practice as of Wednesday, and cornerback Shawntae Spencer (foot) is now on injured reserve. That leaves the Raiders with Ron Bartell at cornerback and … well, let’s see. One plan is to move Michael Huff back from cornerback to safety and start Joselio Hanson at cornerback. Hanson was cut by the Eagles at the end of training camp because the team thought it was deep at cornerback; if you watched the Eagles cornerbacks flail against the Saints two Monday nights ago and wonder what their cast-offs would do against the same receivers, this is your chance. Brandian Ross or Coye Francies could also play, or they may just be typos.
Darren McFadden (ankle) and Richard Seymour (hamstring) also missed practice during the week, and tight end Brandon Myers (concussion) was severely limited. In other words, we’re down to Carson Palmer, Shane Lechler and Sebastian Janikowski, which is one more familiar face than the Raiders usually have left this time of year.
Prediction: Saints 38, Raiders 21
Bears at 49ers
8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Off the board at press time due to quarterback injuries
When author Elbert Hubbard wrote that “life is just one damned thing after another,” he was probably thinking of Jason Campbell’s life. Campbell started for four years at Auburn while Tommy Tuberville juggled offensive coordinators in search of someone who could get a team with Campbell, Ronnie Brown Cadillac Williams AND Brandon Jacobs in the backfield to not lose to Georgia Tech. Campbell persevered until Al Borges brought common sense to the offense and an undefeated record to the Tigers. But that was a mixed blessing: Campbell caught the eye of the Redskins, who were about to divest themselves of the Joe Gibbs NASCAR empire and entrust the organization to – this actually happened – Jim Zorn.
Campbell’s potential dissolved into a lukewarm puddle under Zorn’s guidance, but the Raiders rescued him, which is like a band of teenage Indian Ocean pirates in a speed boat full of automatic weapons saving someone from shark-infested waters. (Exactly like that, actually). Campbell became a pawn in Hue Jackson’s batty power play to populate the Raiders with old Bengals and eventually take the field in one of Al Davis’ old tracksuits. So Campbell spent the second half of the 2011 season watching as Carson Palmer crammed the playbook and the Raiders listed and drifted.
Campbell’s arrival in Chicago made sense for both teams: Campbell needed stability, and the Bears needed a backup quarterback who could actually throw a football. But Sunday night’s relief effort showed just how many bad habits Campbell picked up from the thousands of coordinators he played for. He is reluctant to throw downfield, and he is hesitant in the pocket. Campbell gets his chance (Cutler could still play, but his status was still highly doubtful late in the week), just as the Bears follow up one of the toughest defenses in the AFC with the toughest defense in the NFL, on the road. He must try to get comfortable in an incredibly uncomfortable situation.
The 49ers may also be without their starting quarterback, but Colin Kaepernick is young, energetic, and capable of covering for his mistakes with ostrich sprints and cannon throws. Campbell has been worn down by too many Jacksons and Zorns, and the mistakes may be all that are left.
Prediction: 49ers 22, Bears 16