The coaches take center stage as the NFL enters its final month. Tom Coughlin’s Giants are in danger of coughing up the NFC East, and he is literally fuming over it. Marvin Lewis’ playoff push has extended his coaching tenure, but it will shorten some others. Chuck Pagano may be back on the sideline by Week 17, but will he recognize a league where the Jets are cheered for not scoring, Ronde Barber simultaneously appears in a game and a reunion, and Jim Harbaugh has gone from genius to goofus? This week’s Lowdown is many things, but “unprepossessing” is not one of them.
Dolphins at 49ers
4:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: 49ers by 11 ½
An NFL head coach’s public image is a carefully crafted persona. It reflects the coach’s personality, philosophy and management style, but it is not his true personality. It is a public face, an exercise in image control. Fans and writers use these personas as shorthand – Tom Coughlin is Father Flanagan, Pete Carroll is Harry High School, Norv Turner is a bag of mulch – but the coaches themselves use them to set a tone and “brand” their coaching style to current and future players, and employers.
These personas evolve as circumstances change, the coach gets carried away with his own image, or both. Andy Reid’s noncommittal mumbling sent the message that he kept internal matters private for over a decade; his players loved that message more than Eagles fans loathed it. Reid only lost control of the message in the last 16 months or so. Rex Ryan, like his father, watched his image percolate from hip-shooting scoundrel into wisecracking buffoon. While there is much more to every coach than his persona, the inability to change the message to fit the needs of the team (Ryan tried too late, Reid didn’t, Coughlin succeeded five years ago) can be a sign of inflexibility elsewhere. When the persona starts to overwhelm the team’s performance, that reflection of personality and philosophy becomes a funhouse mirror: If this is what he shares publicly, we wonder at what he holds back, and it becomes easy to worry that the coach has started to believe his own bull.
Which of course brings us to Jim Harbaugh. Last week, Harbaugh sent an under-prepared uber-talent onto the field armed with nothing but some Churchill-in-a-blender inspirational speeches and gadget strategies. The result was an upset loss to the Rams. The Harbaugh persona has been mutating rapidly. He was brazen-but-relatable tactician and back-slapper when his 49ers could do no wrong last year. This season, the sound bytes are growing bizarre, the roster moves reckless and, most critically, the results less impressive.
Colin Kaepernick has the tools to be a franchise quarterback, but not the experience, and rhetoric in the heat of the playoff race is not going to make him better. Harbaugh worked hard to paint himself into this corner, and Harbaugh’s career suddenly hinges on the decision he made last week to follow the “hot hand.” Defense, a non-threatening schedule and Kaepernick’s pure skill will get the 49ers into the playoffs, no matter what happens. But a 10-5-1 record and a one-and-done postseason will make the “courage” speeches curdle and leave the league with a portrait of Harbaugh that looks a little too much like Rex Ryan 2010 for comfort. The persona and the daring philosophy are intertwined, and Harbaugh must prove that he can either defy the odds with both or tug the reins on each.
While the San Francisco drama unfolds, Joe Philbin works in obscurity, developing Ryan Tannehill the best he can with a weapon-free receiving corps and trying to project sturdy professionalism for a franchise that needs a jolt of it. Philbin could be just another .500-caliber coach. But he could be a Coughlin or Reid, playing tortoise to Harbaugh’s hare, losing on Sunday but winning six years from now, when the Dolphins are perennial contenders and Harbaugh is relegated to the game’s “colorful character” bin.
Prediction: 49ers 23, Dolphins 13
Saints at Giants
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Giants by 4 ½
Tom Coughlin said after Monday night’s loss to the Redskins that the Giants “have to win literally every one of our games.” The word “literally” is one of the most misused in the English language, often being used for its exact opposite meaning (“my head literally exploded when I heard that”), but Coughlin is a precise guy, and he is literally close to the truth in this case.
The Giants face the Saints, Falcons, Ravens and Eagles down the stretch. The Eagles are the only pushovers in the bunch, as all the coaches will be fired and Jason Avant will be calling the plays by Week 17. The Redskins, a game back, have the Ravens, Browns, Eagles and Cowboys. They have a decent chance for a total sweep, with the Ravens struggling and the Cowboys likely to go kablooey if the chips are down in Week 17. By winning out, the Redskins would have a 5-1 division record; one loss, and the Giants would fall behind them with a 10-6 record.
The Cowboys, also one game back, have the Bengals, Steelers, Saints and Redskins. They also hold a tiebreaker if they sweep their schedule and the Giants lose once, because the Cowboys would be 4-2 in the division (they must beat the Redskins in the finale for this scenario to work) and the Giants would be 3-3. It is hard to see the Cowboys beating the Bengals and the hungry, healthy Steelers, but it was hard to see both them and the Redskins in the race at all a few weeks ago.
The sloppy season-opening Thursday night loss to the Cowboys, and the sloppy Week 4 Sunday Night loss to the Eagles, are the reasons Coughlin was so nervous and snippy after the sloppy Monday Night loss to the Redskins. This would be a great time to posit a loopy “Giants are awful in night games” trend, except we would have to ignore convincing wins against the Packers and Panthers. Maybe the curse only works against divisional foes.
So Coughlin literally has a great deal to worry about, especially with tackle Sean Locklear joining the always-voluminous Giants injured reserve after his gruesome injury on Monday night. The good news is that most of the causes of the Redskins loss were non-repeatable events. Jim Cordle is not going to commit two holding penalties to erase long kickoff returns again. Linval Joseph is not going to offset a roughness penalty by kicking an opponent again. Coughlin will personally see to that.
The Giants will snap back to sound fundamental football this week. It will be enough to beat the mixed-up Saints. It may not be enough to peel off four straight wins. If the Giants miss the playoffs at 10-6 the way they did in 2010, Jim Cordle will be this year’s Matt Dodge. That’s a bad career path to take. Literally.
Prediction: Giants 28, Saints 21
Ravens at Redskins
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Redskins by 1 ½
Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall was walking around on crutches earlier in the week. Suddenly, the clutches broke free of Hall and got open for a 20-yard reception. Hall chased the crutches down the sideline and somehow managed to horse-collar tackle them, earning a 15-yard penalty. Hall complained about the flag to his orthopedist. Dan Snyder responded to the incident by calling Hall an All-Pro, showering him with money and saying dumb things about the Giants.
Despite the ankle injury, Hall says he will play. The Redskins need him, because fellow cornerback Cedric Griffin is suspended for a substance-abuse violation, but Hall also knows a good deal when he sees it. The Ravens offense is stuck in Missile Command mode: Joe Flacco hoists one 50-yard parabolic bomb in the general direction of a receiver on every series, hoping for either a jump-ball completion or the Ravens’ bread-and-butter play in times of need: defensive pass interference.
Hall may not be good at shutting down receivers, or controlling his temper, but he excels at picking off lofty jump balls. It’s the very skill that fools Snyder and other distracted observers into thinking he is a great player. Hall could have one of his multi-interception games this week. He could just as easily have one of his multi-penalty games. As a third option, Flacco could just throw to the opposite side of the field. Two of the three scenarios favor the Ravens.
Before we move on, did you know that DeAngelo Hall just turned 29 years old? His birthday was Nov. 19. It seems like Hall has been intercepting six passes per year, running one back for a touchdown and allowing about eight easy receptions per game since Super Bowl VII, but in fact he was drafted as a 20-year old in 2004, and he is actually four weeks younger than – you guessed it – Browns “rookie quarterback starting to show progress” Brandon Weeden.
Prediction: Ravens 26, Redskins 20
Chargers at Steelers
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Off the Board (Big Ben, naturally)
Charlie Batch turned 38 years old on Wednesday. He claims that he spent the day “working and relaxing,” but we know the truth: he spent the whole day watching “Barry Sanders: A Football Life” frame-by-frame, looking for himself. (“That’s me, handing off! Gosh, I looked so young.”)
Batch should soon have more time for relaxation. Ben Roethlisberger was a full participant in practice on Wednesday, and on Thursday the Steelers revealed that Big Ben will start. "I thought it was a positive day for Ben," Mike Tomlin said on Wednesday. "He threw the ball around both vertically and horizontally.” Throwing horizontally has always been a major part of Big Ben’s game, and the Steelers have missed the vertical element of their offense. Byron Leftwich could only throw diagonally or elliptically, and before Batch finally loosened up late in the Ravens game, his passes needed a whole different coordinate system.
Roethlisberger also became a father recently, as Ben Junior entered the world to join Camden Jack Cutler as sons of quarterbacks it is admittedly hard to picture as fathers. Leftwich and Batch should open a nursery so they can get to know the kids that they will be backing up in the year 2035.
Prediction: Steelers 19, Chargers 16.
Falcons at Panthers
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Falcons by 3 ½
The best adjective to describe the Falcons is “unprepossessing.” It is actually the best adjective in the universe. I picked it up while watching the old 1943 Orson Welles-Joan Fontaine production of “Jane Eyre” (the all-22 footage, where you can see where the Victorians lined up), and I have been using it to describe things like my sister-in-law’s cooking, and the local leaf collection service. But “unprepossessing” describes the Falcons more than it describes anything else in the world, especially Joan Fontaine circa 1946.
The Falcons are unprepossessing because they rank ninth in yards per game, 18th in yards allowed and tied for seventh in takeaways/giveaways with the Browns and Cardinals. Those numbers are not bad, but they do not shake you and scream, “Clinched division in early December!” In Football Outsiders’ high-tech DVOA statistic, the Falcons rank 16th in offense, 13th in defense, 13th in special teams and dead last among playoff teams in prepossessingness.
A team does not have to be prepossessing to win the Super Bowl, and a team that is a little above average in many areas (and only slightly below average in the rest) is actually a darn good NFL team overall. When compared to the inconsistent Giants, the injury-plagued Packers and a 49ers team packing extra toothbrushes for their coach’s ego trip, the Falcons go from unprepossessing to downright fetching. Other teams are sexier now and then, but over the long haul, it is better to rely on a plain Jane.
Prediction: Falcons 31, Panthers 24
Cowboys at Bengals
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Bengals by 3
The Bengals are in the midst of Operation Coachfire, a three-game stretch in which Marvin Lewis attempts to make the playoffs by slamming the door shut on the tenures of other veteran coaches. The Bengals took a garden hose to the last smoldering embers of Norv Turner’s career last week. Andy Reid’s pilot light is already out in Philly, so Lewis just has to open the windows and call the gas company next week. This game represents the only Coachfire challenge: Jason Garrett still has some spark left, if only because bad opponents keep crouching down to make the Cowboys look good. This game has a “which version of each team will show up?” vibe, but we have not seen the Silly Bengals in about six weeks, while the Silly Cowboys lurk around every bend that is not inhabited by the Sillier Eagles.
Lewis is almost guaranteed to outlast Garrett, Turner and Reid, and when Reid goes Lewis will be the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL, behind Bill Belichick. No one would have taken money on that after the 2010 season. He has kept the Bengals in the thick of the playoff chase despite starting two rookies on the offensive line (including undrafted rookie Trevor Robinson at center) and battling through serious injuries at wide receiver and in the secondary. The Bengals have suffered about as much adversity, and are relying as much or more on inexperienced players, as the flat-lined Chargers and Eagles and the mood-swinging Cowboys. It has been a solid achievement, and Lewis will be rewarded with continued employment, which for once in Cincinnati does not feel like a booby prize.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Cowboys 20
Cardinals at Seahawks
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Seahawks by 11 ½
The Seahawks unveiled a zone-read option offense a few weeks ago, and they used it to great effect in the second half against the Bears. The zone-read is the play where the shotgun quarterback takes the snap and either hands off or snatches the ball away from the running back and sprints to the outside, based on whether the outside defenders go whole-hog to chase the running back or stay at home.
The zone-read is a simple, effective play, and it’s a good way to move the ball when you have a mobile, inexperienced quarterback facing an overaggressive defense. It was perfect for Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch against the Jets and Bears, and it should be effective against the Cardinals, as well. It is a fine way to help your defense hammer out 17-13 wins, and it is not Tebow-Wildcat nonsense, because it does not force your whole offense into contortionist knots.
But – and I only write this because some folks in the Pacific Northwest are sculpting Wilson statues out of their mashed potatoes these days -- the zone-read is not an indicator that your quarterback has changed the standards of quarterbacking or ushered in a whole new era of offensive football. It’s a wrinkle, one that is best phased out or used as a situational short-yardage strategy as a quarterback develops. Wilson has been very impressive this season, but he is also having one of those charmed streaks in which it is easy to overlook flaws, and zone-read plays are often used to wallpaper over flaws.
Think of the zone-read like Christmas decorations: fun to look at now, but a sign that someone hasn’t taken care of business if still visible in January, or certainly (shudder) next September.
Prediction: Seahawks 17, Cardinals 13
Lions at Packers
8:20 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Packers by 7
With Titus Young Senior off the roster for lack-of-disciplinary reasons, Ryan Broyles Esquire out with an ACL tear and Nate Burleson the Elder long gone, the Lions will be hard-pressed to surrounded Calvin Johnson Junior with viable weapons. Mikel Leshoure added the “Senior” to the back of his jersey because he just became a father, not because he wants to follow in the footsteps of Young (which lead into rotating blades), and not because he is the oldest remaining member of the skill position players, though it seems that way. Johnson was targeted 20 times by Matthew Stafford the Clearly Frustrated in the loss to the Colts, a crazy number even for a great receiver, and Johnson will be busy again this week as the Lions promote Nate Durham the Obscure from the practice squad and hope he can provide some offensive continuity before their head coach becomes Jim Schwartz the Forgotten.
The Packers also suffered a major offensive injury last week: James Starks hurt his knee against the Vikings, just when he was starting to give the Packers the pretense of a running game. Alex Green returns to placeholder duty in the backfield, and Ryan Grant returns to provide depth. It may actually be Ryan Grant IV or V at this point. It's hard to tell, because the Packers don't go in for those ridiculous honorifics.
Prediction: Packers 24, Lions 20
Bears at Vikings
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Bears by 2 ½
The Vikings placed Percy Harvin on injured reserve this week, removing any hope that the team will complete a pass more than 12 yards down field for the rest of the season. With Harvin down, the Vikings have a receiving corps that makes the Rams look like the 2007 Patriots. There’s Jerome Simpson, whose Spider-Man catch for the Bengals last year granted him immortality, and who is now content to roam the earth forever catching meaningless fourth-quarter catches. There is Michael Jenkins, who last got open in 2008. There is Devin Aromashodu, whom the Mike Martz Bears didn’t need as a No. 5 receiver two years ago. There is Jarius Wright, a fourth-round pick who may be the best of the bunch, but would be the fifth receiver on a decent corps. The only thing the Vikings lack is a Titus Young-caliber malcontent, though no one would be able to tell if Jenkins tried to sabotage the offense (if he lined up in the wrong place, he might actually elude a defender).
The worse the receiver situation gets, the better Adrian Peterson becomes, which means Peterson can now lift engine blocks with his wishes. The Bears may try to stop Peterson this week, but it is easier to learn from the Packers, allow Peterson to rush for 210 yards and hold the rest of the Vikings to about 40 more. The Bears will have no trouble surpassing that; even if their passing deteriorates into nine blockers for Jay Cutler throwing a jump ball to Brandon Marshall, it’s one more option than the Vikings have.
Prediction: Bears 21, Vikings 13
Eagles at Buccaneers
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Buccaneers by 9
The Buccaneers will host a 10-year reunion this week of the team that upset the Eagles in the NFC Championship game and went on to beat the Raiders in the Super Bowl. In other words, they are rubbing it in. Many current Buccaneers were in junior high when Brad Johnson and company went on their Super Bowl run; one of them was even a New Jersey-based Bucs supporter. "I went to school with a lot of Philadelphia Eagles fans, so that NFC championship game was a great memory for me,'' Tiquan Underwood said. Yeah, that’s great Tiquan. Bet your teachers were thrilled to see that Keyshawn Johnson jersey on your back Monday morning. Remember that pop math quiz on stuff you hadn’t even learned yet, the one only you had to take? Bet that wasn’t so great a memory, was it?
Sorry. That game still smarts, folks.
One guy the Bucs did not have to unearth for the reunion is Ronde Barber, who ran back a touchdown against the Eagles in the 2002 Championship game and will probably run back another this week. Barber made a habit out of torturing Donovan McNabb – three career pick-sixes – and if he has another big game on Sunday, it will be the only thing that reminds Eagles fans of their glory days.
Prediction: Buccaneers 30, Eagles 17
Chiefs at Browns
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Browns by 7
It’s Homecoming Week for former Browns coach Romeo Crennel, quarterback Brady Quinn and running back Peyton Hillis, but tackle Joe Thomas is not eager to catch up on old times with his old running back. “The situation with him here was toxic,” Thomas said of Hillis’ brief tenure in Cleveland. Hillis had such a great season in 2010 that he earned the cover of the “Madden 2012” video game. Thomas’ remarks about Hillis reveal the inner-workings of the Madden Curse: it turns some people into selfish money-grubbers. Must be a mind-control thingy. “He decided his contract was more important than coming out and playing and helping his team win,” Thomas said. Hillis also skipped out on a charity children’s Halloween party that year, but those kids probably stood between him and some guaranteed money, or something.
To call a situation in Cleveland “toxic” is saying something – there is a power struggle going on in the front office right now that would make a Medici shudder – but Thomas has spent his whole career in Cleveland and may have adapted, like the coral that survives around volcanic vents on the ocean floor. In fact, Thomas’ statements don’t even paint the lineman-versus-malcontent picture that we have grown accustomed to in recent weeks. Next time, Thomas should try to Raiola-up his remarks.
Prediction: Browns 20, Chiefs 10
Titans at Colts
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Colts by 5
Two meditations on perseverance from the Colts: one trivial, one vital, both inspirational in its own way. First, the vital one: Chuck Pagano has completed his final round of chemotherapy, and his oncologist said that he was on schedule to possibly (nothing is definite with cancer) return to the sideline by Week 17. "He's been amazing in terms of his focus," he said. "He's done well enough; he's focused on his diet and his conditioning.”
Now the trivial: The Colts are likely to give Pagano some playoff games to coach, largely because they remained focused while trailing in the second half against the Packers early in the season and the Lions last week. “You know you have a chance until the last tick goes off the clock with those guys,” interim coach Bruce Arians said.
There is a message in the story of Pagano and his Colts about never giving up hope, staying focused and working hard in the face of adversity. It is trite and obvious, and also so powerful and important that it never hurts to belabor it.
Prediction: Colts 26, Titans 17
Rams at Bills
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Bills by 2 ½
It is time now for another edition of Nightmare Scenarios of the NFC West! Let’s say that the Rams beat the Bills this week, the Vikings next week, and lose to the Bucs in Week 16. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have a little hiccup, tying the Cardinals (the potential for a 6-6 game is clearly there), losing in Buffalo next week (a blizzard rolls in), then getting mad at their own foolishness and walloping the 49ers in Week 16. The 49ers also slump with an upset loss to the Dolphins, followed by less shocking losses in Foxboro and Seattle. That would put the 49ers and Seahawks at 8-6-1 entering Week 17, with the Rams at 7-7-1.
Are you ready for the best part? The Rams face the Seahawks in Week 17, while the 49ers host the Cardinals. A pair of upsets would leave the Rams, 49ers and Seahawks at 8-7-1. And the NFC West crown would go to … the Rams, by virtue of a 3-0-1 record against common foes.
The only thing that could have made this scenario even better would have been a Cardinals win last week last week, making possible a four-way 8-7-1 tie. That would be pure heaven. And while the nightmare scenario above is pretty unlikely, so is the whole idea of the Rams beating the 49ers on two 50-plus-yard field goals because the 49ers insisted on starting a quarterback who turned into a performance artist at his own 17-yard line.
Prediction: Rams 26, Bills 20
Jets at Jaguars
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Jets by 2 ½
If you ignored last week’s Jets-Cardinals game because it was unwatchable and completely irrelevant, you missed a mind-bending philosophical conundrum in the final seconds. The Jets drove to the red zone at the two-minute warning while leading (gulp) 7-6 behind (super big gulp) Greg McElroy. The Cardinals, out of timeouts, knew they had to allow the Jets to score, giving them a slim chance to drive down the field for their own touchdown and game-tying two-point conversion.
So the best defense no one ever notices attempted to let the worst offense everyone is forced to notice score a touchdown it did not want to score. For a few seconds, both teams dogged it so badly that it looked like the Pro Bowl broke out. Shonn Greene burst through the line, but suddenly his brain grew, Grinch-heart style, from Jets Standard Size to Brian Westbrook Size. Greene plopped at the one-foot line. Angry Cardinals defenders began arguing with each other in just the kind of scene that chased Fireman Ed away from MetLife Stadium.
If the thought of Cardinals defenders bickering over a non-touchdown and Jets fans cheering for their team not scoring doesn’t snap your consciousness like a dry twig, you are made of stronger stuff than I am. Greene’s triumphant failure to score, the Cardinals’ inability to not stop him and the sheer meaningless of the whole milieu, encapsulated the utter futility of all human endeavors. It was the kind of thing that makes you spend a long afternoon staring into space, but in fairness, most fans were aware of that danger in the first place.
With Mark Sanchez back under center and the Jaguars involved, the metaphysical dilemma is about to get worse.
Prediction: Jets Being, Jaguars Nothingness
Texans at Patriots
8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Patriots by 3
While both teams have clinched, home playoff games are on the line in this likely AFC Championship Game preview. That means there will not be any T.J. Yates-Ryan Mallett silliness, but at the same time, neither team will want to show off the whole playbook. For the Texans, than means lots of stretch runs to Arian Foster and Justin Forsett, plus play-fakes by Matt Schaub with little waggle passes to the tight ends. For the Patriots, that means tons of empty-backfield slants to slot receivers and tight ends, mixed with shotgun draw plays to Danny Woodhead and Stevan Ridley. Whoops! Both teams just showed off the whole playbook. Lucky they are both so darned good at executing it.
Prediction: Texans 31, Patriots 28