It took a dozen weeks, but quarterback situations around the NFL have finally collapsed into their natural states of doubt, remorse, recrimination and often-hilarious ineptitude. The Steelers are rummaging for quarterbacks among old strings of Christmas lights, looking for a batch that works. The Jaguars must decide if Chad Henne is the answer to any question other than “why aren’t you watching the Jaguars game?” Ken Whisenhunt is happy with his three-quarterback situation, but only because it gives him the joy of benching two of them. Matt Ryan imitates Bart Starr, Russell Wilson channels Fran Tarkenton and Colin Kaepernick excites Jim Harbaugh so much that Alex Smith has to see the writing on the wall, or at least on Kaepernick. All Jay Cutler’s base are belong to us, but Lowdown kicks off with two teams that have no quarterback controversies at all, just a bad case of season affective disorder.
Packers at Giants
8:20 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Giants by 2 ½
The human brain is a marvelous pattern recognition device. Our intelligence evolved as a mechanism for using repeatable natural patterns as a survival advantage. When something happens over and over again, humans innately spot the sequence and strive to imbue it with relevance. When our predictions are confirmed, our belief in the pattern becomes so reinforced that it becomes difficult to shake, even when contrary evidence appears, or the pattern proves less than reliable. That can be dangerous: Logical fallacies creep in when our pattern recognition software works too well for its own good.
Let’s use astrology as an example. Ancient peoples speculated that when a pattern of stars appeared in the sky, it meant that the mastodon herds would soon reappear. A few millennia later, the pseudoscience that emerged from those ancient observations became so popular that guys in leisure suits used “I’m a Scorpio” as a courtship ritual, and it actually worked. Astrology’s usefulness for Ice Age man nearly caused the downfall of civilization in 1978 because our innate pattern recognition software, while brilliant, is also really buggy.
All of which brings us to the state of the Giants when Orion appears in the night sky: they are 4-10 in November since the 2009 season. Belief in the November swoon has become its own astrology; outside of team headquarters, the Giants’ back-to-back pre-bye were shrugged off as a “November thing.” The Giants will bounce back, like they did last year, and in 2009 (no, wait, they lost three more games and finished 8-8 in 2009), and in 2010 (no, wait, two December losses took them out of the playoffs in 2010).
There’s the rub: the November swoon is not much of a pattern, is it? The 2008 Giants went 5-0 in November, then lost three December games and lost consciousness in the playoffs. The swoon is our caveman brain trying to figure out when the mammoths will return, and it’s tricking us into going home with the guy in platform shoes.
So there is no need to wait for December for the Giants to come around. The Packers offensive line is wracked with injuries, and their running game struggles to gain that third yard every carry, making Aaron Rodgers a one-man offensive show. The Giants defensive line has been disrupting one-dimensional quarterback showcases since 2007. That’s a pattern you can count on. Trust not the stars, unless their names are Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.
(The editors wish to apologize for the previous game preview and promise that the author will never again be allowed to write about football on Tuesday nights while watching “Mankind: The Story of All of Us.”)
Prediction: Giants 24, Packers 21
Falcons at Buccaneers
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Two quarterbacks in history have thrown five interceptions in a game and come away with a victory: Matt Ryan and Bart Starr.
Starr accomplished the feat against the Bears in September 1967. His defending champion Packers were in an early-season slump. One week earlier, Starr threw four picks in 17-17 tie against the Lions. The Packers turned the ball over eight times against the Bears, with Jim Grabowski adding three fumbles to Starr’s five interceptions. Luckily, the Bears were trying to decide between quarterbacks Jack Concannon and Larry Rakestraw, the John Skelton and Ryan Lindley of the Summer of Love era, and the pair combined for a whopping 23 passing yards while waiting for Gale Sayers to punch in a game-tying fourth-quarter touchdown. Starr did just enough in the final drive to get Don Chandler in range for a game-winning field goal, and the Packers escaped with a 13-10 win.
Vince Lombardi, history tells us, did not own a panic button. “We’re having a hell of a time,” he said after the game. “One of these days, these things are going to stop and this is going to be a great football team.” Starr also remained upbeat that day. “I hope all these errors come in a lump and we’re over it,” he said. They were right, of course: The 1967 Packers went on to win Super Bowl II.
None of this is meant to equate Ryan with Starr. It just goes to show that even the Lombardi Packers had awful days, and that the road to history is sometimes paved with narrow wins against Ryan Lindley and Larry Rakestraw. Ryan threw some ugly passes last week, and he may have revealed some fatal flaw in his game, but more likely it was just a lump of errors, and he is over it.
Prediction: Falcons 28, Buccaneers 17
Ravens at Chargers
4:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Now, here’s a quandary. On the one hand, you have the Ravens on the Trail of Tears, without Ray Lewis, with defenders Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs playing through injuries, and with their usually bland offense in a state of agitation. Ray Rice is doing the unthinkable with Terrible Towels (using them to wipe away moisture, the cad), Jacoby Jones is auditioning for workplace training sexual harassment videos and Joe Flacco is moving in the pocket like the Ravens are directing a children’s theatre production of “The Giving Tree,” and he’s the tree.
On the other hand, you have the Chargers in full surrender mode, with half of their offensive line injured (guard Tyronne Green got hurt while making a tackle after an interception, which is symbolic of everything), Philip Rivers lapsing into thousand-mile stares, Ryan Mathews fumbling as if lost footballs get donated to needy children and San Diego columnists speculating openly about what an A.J. Smith-Jon Gruden office meeting would look like (hint: watch the “execution of Gassim” scene from “Lawrence of Arabia”).
An Ed Reed suspension would have been the tipping point for the Ravens. Without Reed and Lewis, with other defenders lost or hobbled, the Ravens are about as scary as the Tennessee Titans. Even with Reed, the Ravens don’t have enough impact defenders to grind out 13-10 roads wins against teams whose quarterbacks start more than one game per presidential term. After Sunday, the Ravens will be able to sleep in their own beds for a solid month (their only road game is against the Redskins), so they will be able to resume their annual grueling playoff summit climb next week. But the Chargers will win if they show up this week. Maybe if we tell them that, they will.
Prediction: Chargers 27, Ravens 20
Vikings at Bears
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Off due to Cutler injury
Jay Cutler is an MVP candidate by the “value to his team” criteria. Without him, the Bears offense plays as if there’s barbed wire at the first down marker. By that same “value to inept teammates” criteria, I should write for a website staffed entirely by the people who translate video games into English (“Adrian Peterson makes sacrifice articles of those who open the combat against him and proves the justice of our culture”) and wait for the awards to roll in. No quarterback should be unfairly blamed for the ineptitude of his teammates, but no quarterback should unfairly benefit, either.
Cutler is expected back for Sunday, and the Vikings know they cannot count on injuries or other outside factors to help them complete their unlikely playoff run in a tough division. “We are in position to control our own destiny, and that's all you can ask for,” Jared Allen said. Or, as it will be written in my next job, “We are the prevailors that protect right and justice and will go ahead dauntlessly to make rapid progress.”
Prediction: Bears 24, Vikings 17 with Cutler; Vikings 23, Bears 13 without Cutler
49ers at Saints
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Off due to Smith injury
There’s a quarterback controversy in San Francisco, and it involves Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos. Lots of athletes go overboard on the ink, but few can touch Kaepernick when it comes to sheer verbiage. Kaepernick’s body looks like the font selection drop-down box in Microsoft Word, and it takes some dedicated reading to decipher Kaepernick’s bare-chested message to the world.
Kaepernick has “Against All Odds” inked in ornate calligraphy along his collarbone and “Faith” in block letters down his right bicep. So, there you have it: Kaepernick’s tattoos are a tribute to the Billboard Hot 100 in 1987, when Phil Collins and George Michael ruled the world. But wait: His left arm contains a cross and what appears to be a psalm, though the verse scrolls completely around the arm and is impossible to read unless Kaepernick has you in a headlock (in which case, a prayer might be wise).
As for Kaepernick’s back, interpret this how you like. It’s like Rodin’s original Etch a Sketch of the Gates of Hell after a vigorous shaking.
Alex Smith will have to make do with the “love” and “hate” tattoos on his knuckles. His fingers have veins that run straight into his soul, and the when he crosses his hands, love and hate battle with all their might for his heart and soul, and those fingers are always warring and tugging, one against each other, and it looks like love’s a goner. But the battle doesn’t matter at all. Colin Kaepernick wins.
(The editors would like to once again apologize and will make sure to block “The Night of the Hunter” from Turner Classic Movies when the author is working. Blame the short week, folks.)
Prediction: 49ers 26, Saints 24
Seahawks at Dolphins
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Seahawks by 2 ½
Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle could not say enough good things about Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson this week. “I was kidding with the players, and not one guy in the room knew what I was talking about, but I compared him in some respect to Fran Tarkenton, and they all looked at me like, ‘What?’ If any of you guys had watched Fran Tarkenton in his day, it wasn’t laterally going forward: He would lose ground, sometimes five, 10, 15, 20 yards, to try to run away from whoever. This guy can do those things, and he’s got that sixth sense of where the rush is coming from, and he finds a way to scoot away and then he looks to throw.”
A few points to unpack here: 1) Tarkenton retired in 1978, several years before any Dolphins defensive players were born. They probably wondered why Coyle thought Wilson was anything like that crazy old man who hates Brett Favre. The Dolphins need Jason Taylor back so Coyle has someone close to his own age to talk to. 2) Defensive coaches always love spunky, short, scrambling quarterbacks. They love to talk about how hard those quarterbacks are to stop. They then easily stop those quarterbacks. They must like them in the way they like Sudoku puzzles. 3) “Laterally going forward” is actually Jeff Ireland’s corporate motto, and it is great to hear his coaches using it in casual conversation.
The Dolphins have a rookie quarterback of their own in Ryan Tannehill, but no one is talking much about Tannehill lately. Tannehill threw two late interceptions in last Thursday’s loss to the Bills, surprising everyone who never watched his final season at Texas A&M. “Ryan’s fine. It’s just growing pains. We all got to go through them,” said Reggie Bush, who endured his at age 26. The pains will continue against one of the league’s best defenses, as the Seahawks probably inspire in Coyle both memories of the Purple People Eaters and a bad case of envy.
Prediction: Seahawks 23, Dolphins 13
Raiders at Bengals
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Bengals by 9 ½
If the Bengals stopped playing football games and concentrated instead on producing You Tube clips of A.J. Green catching circus touchdowns, many of us would not notice the difference. That’s a shame, because the Bengals have a lot of other things going for them, like … hmm, their pass rush is pretty dangerous. Andy Dalton has to throw those touchdowns, though Green’s tiptoeing, high-jumping receptions suggest that he is the one doing most of the work. And Kevin Huber is really tearing it up. The Bengals are more than just a receiver who can alter the laws of physics in the corner of the end zone. They are also Geno Atkins, a crude launching device and a punter!
Green and his mystery teammates may well make the playoffs. The Raiders will put up twice the fight the Chiefs mustered, so brace for four field goals this week, and road trips to San Diego and Philadelphia will feel like those creepy “urban decay” tours by the time the Bengals arrive. The Bengals reached the playoffs by the same route last year, but they did not last long enough for us to get to know them. Or, perhaps there really is not much to get to know.
Prediction: Bengals 28, Raiders 12
Steelers at Browns
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Off due to Leftwich injury
This is the time of year when many of us venture into the basement to find the Christmas decorations. One dusty inventory later, we discover that Rudolph’s nose doesn’t light up (and the lead-lined, asbestos treated bulb is no longer replaceable), Frosty’s hat is now home to a family of spider crickets, none of the wise men can stand upright and somehow the awning lights spark and fizzle before we plug them in. These annual problems are the result of negligence and poor planning, the foolish assumption that any problem that is not immediate (like the state of the decorations when we took them down, in March) is also not important.
The Steelers’ backup quarterback situation is like that. Charlie Batch grabs the old straw hat and shouts “Happy Birthday” this week if Byron Leftwich (shoulder) cannot glue himself back together. Meanwhile, Plaxico Burress is just joined the team, because what every team needs is a receiver who left eight years ago and has since been incarcerated by both our legal system and the Jets organization. Who knows who else is lingering in that dusty old basement from 2002: Kordell Stewart? Amos Zereoue? Whatever other surprises the Steelers have in store should be locked in a box labeled “Do not open until after Christmas.”
Prediction: Steelers 16, Browns 10
Bills at Colts
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Colts by 3
The Bills and Colts rank 29th and 32nd in the NFL defense according to Football Outsiders; the Bills clawed their way up from 31st thanks to last Thursday’s victory over the Dolphins. The Colts have not intercepted a quarterback other than Blaine Gabbert since Week 4, and the only teams they have stopped from scoring touchdowns in goal-to-go situations all year are the Jaguars and Titans. In fact, you can create an entire “excluding the Jaguars” category for Colts statistics. But Jaguars games count, which is why the Colts defense only ranks in the low 20s (as opposed to dead last) in most official categories, and not coincidentally is also the reason Wade Phillips smiles so much.
The Bills defense ranks dead last or next-to-last in many official categories, like third-down percentage, yards per rush and red zone efficiency, plus minutiae like punt return yardage allowed. But the Football Outsiders DVOA stat gives them from slack for facing the Patriots in “score 52 points to prove one” mode twice. So the Colts defense isn’t as good as it looks, the Bills defense isn’t as bad, and the first team to reach 35 points gets to worry about making adjustments for the third quarter.
Prediction: Colts 44, Bills 35
Broncos at Chiefs
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Broncos by 11 ½
Willis McGahee (knee) will miss at least six weeks, which will be a big problem for the Broncos when they start facing real competition in December. McGahee has had a strange career. A Heisman finalist who suffered a gruesome triad injury in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, McGahee spent five seasons as an embattled disappointment for the Bills, making uncharitable comments about Buffalo women almost a decade before Reggie Bush made it uncool again. McGahee reinvented himself as a good citizen off the bench in Baltimore, slowly ceding carries to Ray Rice as the years wore on.
Just when he appeared finished, McGahee reinvented himself again as Tim Tebow’s option-mate, racking up 100-yard performances in some of the most notorious Tebow Time games and getting roughly zero credit for it. The 100-yard games and complete anonymity continued with Peyton Manning this season. College superstar, malcontent, useful plugger, underappreciated veteran: There is a career arc in there somewhere, it is just in the wrong sequence.
Speedy rookie Ronnie Hillman is the favorite to replace McGahee, though Lance Ball will take his place when John Fox wants more power or a better blocker. Knowshon Moreno is still on the roster, and though he is unlikely to take meaningful snaps, he might play against the Chiefs. Perhaps Moreno can reinvent himself and will still be around in a decade. It’s a far more interesting thing to speculate about than the Chiefs’ quarterback controversy, which is really saying something.
Prediction: Broncos 31, Chiefs 13
Titans at Jaguars
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Titans by 2 ½
Chad Henne gets the start for the Jaguars this week, as Blaine Gabbert was placed on IR and will be allowed to rest until he is completely healthy. Completely healthy: physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and reputation-wise. That last part is key, because nowadays our reputations are often defined by our Internet presence. Gabbert must rest until web browsers no longer offer “Why Gabbert stinks” articles or “How the scouts were so wrong on Gabbert” articles, until Gabbert falls off the bottoms of the “All-time draft busts” and “All-time Jaguars mistakes” lists, until Wikipedia gains sentience and enslaves humanity. He can then return to the field and play quarterback upon the charred cinder a forgotten race once called “Earth.”
The Titans are the NFL’s gremlins: They are incapable of creating their own success but excel at ruining yours. When facing the Jaguars there is nothing to destroy, so there is nothing for the Titans to do except hand off to Chris Johnson and wait for the Texans next week.
Prediction: Jaguars 20, Titans 17
Rams at Cardinals
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Cardinals by 1
John Skelton: benched for being John Skelton. Adrian Wilson: benched in nickel situations. Rookie receiver Michael Floyd: benched for lining up incorrectly. Sunday’s starter: uncertain, with Ryan Lindley ready to provide 35 more net yards if called upon and Kevin Kolb’s ribs now equipped with convenient side hinges. Ken Whisenhunt is alternately on the warpath and desperately doing silly, unjustifiable things, which means he has become a nightmare boss, though Beanie Wells feels otherwise. ''It's the way it should be,'' Wells said. ''We get paid to play football and we get paid to play football the right way. When you're not doing it right, you have to come out.” Wells has missed several games with turf toe and should return for Sunday’s game, giving Whisenhunt one more high-profile player to bench.
Prediction: Rams 20, Cardinals 16
Panthers at Eagles
8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Off due to Vick injury
Take it away, Bob Dylan:
Wise man lookin' in a blade of grass
Young man lookin' in the shadows that pass
Poor man lookin' through painted glass
Blind man breakin' out of a trance
Puts both his hands in the pockets of chance
Hopin' to find one circumstance
So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I'm at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it's gonna take
To find dignity.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Eagles 17