It's still autumn, but now is the winter of the NFL's discontent. The ravages of cold and age are everywhere. Creaky joints, like the ones on the Steelers' backup quarterbacks. Indecision, like Jim Harbaugh's about his quarterbacks, and Mike Tice's about his offensive line. Crotchetiness, like old Chiefs players about Jamaal "Autograph Hunter" Charles, and Chris Palmer about the Titans offense he could not coordinate. The Eagles are lost and alone in the wilderness, Justin Tuck is reliving old cartoons as new nightmares, and Bart Scott doesn't need an excuse to sound like a ridiculous old grouch. Leave it to Peyton Manning to teach the whippersnappers a thing or two. This is no cesspit of disappointment, folks:
It's the Week 13 Lowdown!
Buccaneers at Broncos
4:05 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Broncos by 8
The Broncos clinch the AFC West with either a win or a Chargers loss. It's amazing that a team is not only able to clinch in Week 13, but has a chance to clinch even in defeat. But mix Peyton Manning and Norv Turner into one division, add Romeo Crennel and whoever thinks they're running the Raiders now (Hue Jackson still has a crowbar wedged in some gearbox somewhere), and Kabloom! Instant inevitable outcome.
As for the resurgent Buccaneers, their slim playoff chances are now dictated by cornerback suspensions: the four-game penalty on their own Eric Wright, and the looming bans of Seahawks corners Richard Sherman and Robert Browner, which are under appeal. The Buccaneers rank 24th in pass defense according to Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings. Their 16 interceptions are impressive, but they also allow a league-high 315 passing yards per game. After coping with Peyton, they must face Drew Brees and Matt Ryan again (on the road) before the season ends. Ronde Barber may slide back to cornerback to replace Wright, but turning a wily, roving safety back into an old-and-slow cornerback may not be an ideal solution. (E.J. Biggers and Leonard Johnson started at cornerback against the Falcons with Wright injured, and it wasn't a total catastrophe, in part because Barber was available to undercut routes and be a general gadfly).
If they can take two of three from the Broncos, Saints and Falcons, the Buccaneers could still reach the playoffs if the Seahawks falter; without the best cornerback tandem in the NFL, the Seahawks are just knockoff Redskins. But league officials are too busy railroading the Bounty Boys to deal with Seahawks appeals this week, so Sherman and Browner will play while Wright sits, and the Seahawks have a great chance to gain another game in the wild-card race.
Which only goes to show you that it's great to have Peyton Manning at quarterback, and/or play in the AFC West.
Prediction: Broncos 31, Buccaneers 21
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Seahawks at Bears
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Bears by 3½
Mike Tice's favorite hobby is juggling offensive linemen. (It used to be scalping Super Bowl tickets, but a scandal and StubHub took all the joy out of that). If Mike Tice and Todd Haley were ever on the same coaching staff, the offensive linemen would shuffle positions on every play, a different running back would take each and every handoff and the quarterback would not know who to have a personality conflict with first.
Tice's compulsive line twiddling is a weakness when everyone is healthy, but it becomes a strength when the Bears face multiple injuries, because every lineman knows he could enter the game at any position at any time for any reason. So Gabe Carimi, who was benched at right tackle after an ugly performance against the 49ers, is more-or-less ready to go at right guard in place of injured Lance Louis. And Edwin Williams, who replaces the injured Chris Spencer, who replaces the departed Chilo Rachal, is ready at left guard after a dozen spot-starts in his career to cover injuries and Tice mood swings. Tice is getting James Brown ready to assume Williams' former role as the wad of gum used to patch the first leak, and 33-year old ex-Cowboys center Andre Gurode has been exhumed and will somehow find himself in this game by the third quarter.
All of this would be a rolling catastrophe for most coaches, but the secret of Tice's success is that his offensive lines are never very settled or very good in the first place, so the Bears are always prepared for turmoil. The Seahawks will make a ceviche out of this line, but the Bears will limp into the playoffs anyway, and Tice will somehow get credit for getting the Bears through the year with a makeshift line, even though he is often the one who makes the shifts in the first place.
Prediction: Seahawks 20, Bears 16
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Steelers at Ravens
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Off the board due to Roethlisberger Injury
When future historians try to determine how a deeply flawed Ravens team coasted to the AFC North title in 2012, the simple answer will be that Ben Roethlisberger got injured and the Steelers were forced to resort to Backup Quarterbacks of a Certain Age. The Ravens took advantage of Byron Leftwich in a narrow win, then came back two weeks later and faced Charlie Batch (Roethlisberger has been ruled out), benefiting from a Browns beating of Batch in between. The Steelers' skid allowed the Ravens to coast into the postseason despite multiple injuries on defense and an offense that forces Ray Rice to drag a boulder 29 yards to beat placeholder opponents like the Chargers.
That narrative, while neat, overlooks the fact that the Steelers lost to awful Raiders and Titans teams with Roethlisberger healthy. Todd Haley's Rube Goldberg device of a running game has spread the fumbles and ineptitude around so that no one running back can claim to be the problem, and Mike Wallace's low per-catch average (12.2; his career mark was 18.7) cannot really be blamed on Leftwich and Batch, who can't manage to get him the football at all. The Steelers offense is an over-engineered, under-performing contraption with Big Ben healthy, and their aging, injury-prone defense is great but not awesome. The Ravens are about to win the AFC North because they are a significantly better team, even though history tells us to brace for another low-scoring scrum on Sunday.
Of course, if future historians really look back on the AFC North in 2012, it could be part of a documentary titled "Andy Dalton and A.J. Green: A Football Life."
Prediction: Ravens 26, Steelers 13
Bengals at Chargers
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Bengals by 1½
The Football Outsiders playoff odds report gives the Bengals a 53.8 percent chance of reaching the postseason, with the Steelers at 54.1 percent but fading after two straight losses have sapped their playoff momentum.
Oh no. Slim percentage differences. Discussions of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Momentum. Election flashback! John King compulsively rubbing maps … bayonets … binders … little crying girls [curls into ball in self-defense].
Speaking of curling into a ball in self-defense, when we last saw Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth, he was lying on the ground taking his licks from the Raiders curb-stomping personnel package after rushing headlong into the fray to protest an Andy Dalton sack in a non-Gandhi way. "It's their opportunity to do something they feel and be tough, but that ain't tough," Whitworth said of the small battalion who encircled him when he was on the ground. "Face-to-face is tough. Most of those guys, they are what they are -- they're cowards."
No need to call the Raiders cowards, hoss. Just call them a team with a 0.1 percent chance of making the playoffs. With a 0.1 percent margin of error.
Prediction: Bengals 28, Chargers 17
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Vikings at Packers
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Packers by 9½
The Packers' injury list is running out of important players you're familiar with and is starting to delve into important players you aren't. Defensive end C.J. Wilson is one of the team's best run defenders, but after a Sunday night knee injury, he joins Clay Matthews (a longshot to play on Sunday), Charles Woodson (out), Sam Shields (out), Cedric Benson (out), Nick Perry (injured reserve), Bryan Bulaga (injured reserve) and others whose names we're too lazy to type on the Packers' championship-caliber non-participants list. On the plus side, Greg Jennings practiced this week, but unlike Wilson, Jennings is not going to do a lick of good stopping Adrian Peterson.
At least the injured Packers are keeping busy. Benson has renamed himself D.J. World Peace and now rocks the turntables at Texas strip clubs. From his Facebook page: "Everything is clear to me! The world is full of energy! I'm making my way to be a part of history! So let's all get together and dance the night away!!" Benson has a foot injury! So dancing the night away with strippers is a bad idea!! But it's a great way to be apart from the Packers roster next year! And guarantee that the NFL's drug testers will be at the door of the strip club at closing time!!! The Packers have just enough weapons to pull away this week, but look for Peterson to make all of his exclamations on the field, not the dance floor.
Prediction: Packers 27, Vikings 23
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49ers at Rams
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: 49ers by 8
The many faces of Jim Harbaugh:
Harbaugh, the manipulative love interest: "Alex Smith is still our starting quarterback … Also Colin Kaepernick, you can't categorize him as a backup quarterback, because he's started games and played very well in those games." I have strong feelings for you, but we can never, ever date. But I may drunk dial you when my real boyfriend blows me off, and I am sure to call if I need help moving furniture while he is too busy polishing his Harley, because you will always be special to me in a way that he can never be, as the wonderful friend who does whatever I ask him to do.
Harbaugh, the guy trying to pawn his socks in Vegas: "What tips the scales is Colin, we believe, has the hot hand. And we'll go with Colin … And we'll go with Alex. Both are our guys." That's what I base my decisions on: streaks. Streaks and my gut. My gut streaks tell me to ride the hot hand. I was a leading figure at the nation's premier scientific institution for four years, and I believe in things like "the hot hand," and possibly "the evil eye." Terrifying, isn't it?
Harbaugh, the Churchill of Combinatorics: "Not going to start talking about speculation or every permutation that you could get into. We're not going to speculate on it. We'll worry about everything and fear nothing." See? Permutations. I did pick something up at Stanford! Let's see, two quarterbacks and one starting job: 2-P-1 equals … two permutations. Though with five games left, the total outcomes are 2 5 which equals 32. Good heavens, there are 32 different ways I can juggle Kaepernick and Smith? Maybe I can stall for the rest of this press conference by listing them all. There's Colin-Colin-Alex-Alex-Colin, Colin-Alex-Colin-Alex-Colin, Colin-Colin-Alex-Alex-Colin, oh snap I said that already.
Harbaugh, the Mystic: "I wouldn't assume anything. I know you probably will, but I'd assume nothing." Except that I am starting to get swept away by my own hype. Feel free to totally assume that.
Harbaugh, the Inimitable: "But as a coach and as a team, we don't fear any moment or circumstance or other man." Only commitment. And the hot hand. And the evil eye. And permutations themselves.
Prediction: 49ers 22, Rams 20
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Patriots at Dolphins
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Patriots by 8½
The Patriots clinch the AFC East with a win on Sunday; Dec. 2 is a little early by even their standards, but then Thanksgiving was a week early too, so we're all a little off our schedules (see also: the Broncos). The Patriots rank first in the NFL in points per game, yards per game, third-down efficiency and all the high-tech metrics that matter, like Football Outsiders' DVOA. The "running up the score" narrative returned in the last few weeks, as Thanksgiving Day fans who just watched the Cowboys nearly erase a 28-3 deficit seriously speculated that Bill Belichick should have called off the dogs against a hated rival that kept gift-wrapping the football and leaving it in the end zone for them.
Everything is exactly where it needs to be, including those embarrassing "the Patriots dynasty has ended" storylines that were buzzy and current when the team was 3-3 and now sound like Chicken Little hyperventilation. It's time for us to recite the Patriots version of the Hangover Oath one more time: "I swear that I will never, EVER, go on a binge and prematurely bury the Patriots in mid-October again, as long as I live.
"And this time, I mean it!"
Prediction: Patriots 38, Dolphins 23
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Jaguars at Bills
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Bills by 6
The Eagles released pass rusher Jason Babin this week, and while Babin was clearly frustrated with the Eagles' collapse, he said all the right things after getting sprung. "Maybe it was the best thing for me," Babin said. "I think it's pretty clear what my intentions are. I like to win." Er, perhaps Babin should have read up on the NFL's waiver policy. Dan Snyder crouched with a five-foot diameter novelty catcher's mitt and waited to grab Babin for the Redskins, but someone in Jaguars headquarters roused himself from his fugue state at just the right moment, scanned the waiver wire, and said, "heck."
Babin is now trapped in a worse situation than the one he left, though if he manages three sacks in the Jaguars' final five games, and if no Eagles defender manages 2½ sacks down the stretch, Babin could lead two teams in sacks in one year. Unfortunately, those two teams will struggle for eight combined wins.
Prediction: Bills 26, Jaguars 16
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Colts at Lions
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Lions by 5
Meanwhile, at Downton Detroit Abbey, the crown decided it could discipline Ndamukong Suh despite an inability to determine the intent of his flailing kick to Matt Schaub's cullions. "I dare say," the Countess Dowager was heard to remark, "then when a man heaves his foot at another man's knackers he can hardly be thought to be soliciting for the parish council." Suh responded to the news by once again rapping his carriage round a garden gate.
Meanwhile, Young Titus Senior returned to the manor house but was not welcomed by the Earl of Schwartz, who made him sleep in the livery stables (or at least work out with the backup wide receivers) while he sought absolution against unspecified transgressions of propriety. "You have put yourself before home and hearth, church and crown!" the Earl bellowed, but just then his challenge flag came un-festooned from his waistcoat and fell to the ground. No one snickered, except the Countess Dowager, of course. In this week's episode, a brash nouveau-riche provincial arrives, flush with confidence and success. Can the household pull itself together and reject this Luck-y interloper's intrusion into society? Or will they be forced to resort to yet another ineffective kick in the tallywag?
Prediction: Lions 34, Colts 21
Texans at Titans
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Texans by 7
The Titans fired offensive coordinator Chris Palmer early in the week. Palmer has had a long, rambling, lackluster career. He has coached in the USFL (New Jersey Generals, 1985), the CFL (Montreal Concordes, 1983), and the UFL (Hartford Colonials, 2010), and played major roles in the formative seasons of the expansion Jaguars (offensive coordinator, 1997-98), Texans (offensive coordinator 2002-2005), and Cleveland Browns (head coach 1999-2000). When working for Tom Coughlin (with the Jaguars and Giants), Palmer gets the job done, but then so do many people. When separated from Coughlin, his resume is full of bad teams, failed quarterback prospects and belly-up leagues.
Palmer's greatest disappointments, however, appear to be his players. "I feel we put the players in a position to make plays, and at that point it falls on the players," Palmer told The Tennessean on Tuesday. "It is just hard when eight of the 12 possessions start inside the 20 and you have a rookie quarterback and you think you are going to go down and score a bunch of points."
Jake Locker is not a rookie, coach; it is always wise to get our basic facts straight before finger-pointing. The remainder of Palmer's comments can be found on this email, which went viral in midweek:
It is obvious that none of you has the faintest notion of the bitter disappointment each of you has in your own way dished out to us. We are constantly regaled with chapter and verse of the happy, successful lives of the Texans and Colts, while you treat Mike Munchak and myself like a cess-pit. Fulfilling careers based on your draft standings would have helped, yet each of you has contrived to avoid even a moderate achievement. I am bitterly, bitterly disappointed.
Oops, sorry, that was not Palmer, but some other bitter old fellow who doesn't realize how badly petty recriminations reflect upon the person making them.
Prediction: Texans 27, Titans 13
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Panthers at Chiefs
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Panthers by 3
Jamaal Charles asked Peyton Manning for his autograph after Sunday's loss. This controversial act of disloyalty offended … someone. Someone named Rich Baldinger, a former Chiefs tackle who crawled out of obscurity to play the role of Fogey McStrawman with this sound bite: "I don't understand it at that moment. They were smiling and laughing after the loss like that today. I just think it just goes to show what this team's about. I don't know if winning's really that important."
(He added: I can now tell you that I for one, and I sense Christian Okoye feels the same, have had enough of being forced to live through the never-ending bad dream of our underachievement and ineptitudes. I want to hear no more from any of you until, if you feel inclined, you have a success or an achievement or a REALISTIC plan for the support and happiness of your fans to tell me about. -- oh wait, that was the other angry old guy again.)
Other than Baldinger and the usual cast of kneejerk web commenters, no one seems incensed about Charles, and many fellow players are rushing to his defense. Manning said the autograph was no big deal, and Arian Foster continued his push to replace Ricky Williams as the league's hippie sage, saying he got Charles' autograph at the 2010 Pro Bowl and "I switch jerseys with players damn near every game." (Dude, that No. 23 looks sooooo cute on you.)
Peyton Manning autographed footballs list for anywhere from $250 to $1,000. Foster signed jerseys go for $200-$300 (as his tweet indicates, Foster keeps supplies high, and therefore prices down). A signed Charles jersey goes for about $300, as does a Cam Newton if Charles angles for one this week. A lengthy search for signed Rich Baldinger memorabilia revealed "no matching records."
Prediction: Chiefs 20, Panthers 14
* * *
Cardinals at Jets
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Jets by 4½
Having already taken on individual bloggers and the media in general earlier in the year, Bart Scott has now declared war on Jets fans themselves. "At the end of the day, if you made it to be able to put an NFL uniform on, then you are one of the best athletes in the world," Scott told the New York Daily News. "The person yelling at you probably was picked last in dodge ball all through high school. So do you care about the opinion of them? No."
Now, the paid attendance at MetLife Stadium on Thursday night was 79,088. And let's assume that all 79,000 of them were mocking Scott as he let Shane Vereen coast past him for an 83-yard touchdown, which was hardly a play worthy of one of the best athletes in the world. There are 37,100 public and private high schools in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That makes 2.13 Jets game attendees for every high school. Multiply by four years of high school, and Scott thinks that the folks who laughed at his embarrassingly inept pass coverage on Thanksgiving night represent 8.52 years of dodgeball final selections at every educational institution in the United States. And that figure does not include the large number of schools that have either banned dodgeball because uncoordinated kids were dangerously incapable of getting out of their own way (kind of like Scott against Vereen on Thursday night) or renamed it "battle ball" or "bombardment" or "learn to throw straight and accurate and you won't have to participate in a Jets-Cardinals game when you grow up."
Or, conversely, Scott is just being a dumb bully.
Scott also said of a heckler: "I would love to go to his job and see what he does and sit in his ear and talk stuff." I cannot speak for anyone else, but man, that would make my job a thousand times easier.
Prediction: Jets 19, Cardinals 13
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Browns at Raiders
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Off the board due to Brandon Weeden. Seriously.
On the field, the Browns have been a mealy bore for most of the last decade. Even after beating the Steelers, all we get is a concussed Brandon Weeden lamenting that the team didn't practice the pass patterns during the week that they used during the game (the Browns always make sure we hear from their concussed quarterbacks after games, perhaps because they still sound more cogent than Pat Shurmur) followed by a Colt McCoy reappearance that makes you long for the good old days of the Charlie Frye-Derek Anderson quarterback sadtroversy.
But off the field? The Browns make "The Tudors" look like the planning committee for a kindergarten dinner dance. New owner Jimmy Haslam has nudged out team president Mike Holmgren, and he is now so chummy with Jon Gruden that the rumor mill is spitting out golden ingots involving partial ownership of the Browns in exchange for a Gruden coronation as the head coach at University of Tennessee, Haslam's alma mater. This is all delicious, because any sensible rumor would simply have Haslam luring Gruden to coach the Browns, but that just isn't Brownish enough for the franchise that brought you The Fall of the House of Policy, Butch Davis as Richard III, and David Mamet's classic Phil Savage Glen Ross.
Gene Siskel used to judge bloated Hollywood films using a simple litmus test: "Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?" Jimmy Haslam, Jon Gruden, Carol and Mark Davis, and four turkey clubs would totally blow this game away.
Prediction: Browns 17, Raiders 9
* * *
Eagles at Cowboys
8:20 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Cowboys by 11
Andy Reid and his Eagles are trudging through the final weeks of the season like a doomed Arctic expedition. They set out 13 years ago with ample provisions, high morale and military precision, but the elements wore them down. Look at them now: weary, frostbitten, half-mad from lead poisoning, sloughing off valuable party members at every turn for desperate, ill-conceived reasons. Juan Castillo: tried for mutiny and left to fend for himself on a mountaintop. Jason Babin: waived so he could join a friendly Inuit tribe. Michael Vick … well, if ever there was a character who fell out of a Jack London novel and into the NFL, it is Michael Vick.
Doomed Arctic expeditions often resorted to cannibalism in those final, horrible days. Let's hope the team charter doesn't taxi on the runway too long.
Prediction: Cowboys 28, Eagles whatever
* * *
Giants at Redskins
8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Giants by 2
Justin Tuck has been having the Robert Griffin dream again. No, not that one. The scary one. "Until I exit stage right, it seems like he's going to be a fixture in my dreams and nightmares."
In the dream, Tuck is riding an elevator, and suddenly the power and lights go out. When everything turns on again, Griffin stands motionless holding a baby doll. Then he SCREAMS!
Also in the dream, Tuck is Snagglepuss.
Tuck's Giants gave up a 20-of-28 passing performance and 89 rushing yards to Griffin in Week 7, but they also forced an interception and a fourth-quarter Griffin fumble, coming away with a 27-23 win. So Tuck should not be too terrified. Then again, the subconscious moves in mysterious ways, and who else should the Giants fear in their division? "I'm pretty mad at the football gods for putting him in the NFC East," Tuck said of Griffin.
Upon hearing in an elevator that Tuck had elevated him to godhood, Dan Snyder was heard to exclaim "Heavens to Murgatroyd!"
Prediction: Giants 24, Redskins 20