The playoffs may nearly be set, but there are spooky signals that some shakeups are still in store. The Colts could snatch away a Texans division crown that appeared to be as inevitable as the sunrise a month ago. Strange finger injuries have afflicted the league's head-case receivers: Randy Moss' has been interpreted as a good omen, Dez Bryant's as bad, but perhaps the fault lies not with the stars. And those ominous clouds in the distance can mean only one thing: The Jets have not yet been eliminated from the playoffs. This week's Lowdown reveals a powerful secret: Three may not be a magic number, but 0-for-3 is, and the Falcons must overcome some seriously bad juju if they hope avoid going 0-for-4 in the postseason.
Giants at Falcons
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
A wonderful thing happened to the Falcons in an otherwise distressing loss to the Panthers last week. Faced with fourth-and-four late in the third quarter, trailing 23-0, Matt Ryan took a shotgun snap, rolled right and flipped a short pass to fullback Jason Snelling in the middle of the field. Snelling followed a wall of blocks for a five-yard gain.
Snelling's catch was the Falcons' first fourth-down conversion of both the 2012 season and the 2012 calendar year. The Falcons were 0-3 on fourth downs during the season before the Panthers game. More memorably, they were 0-for-3 on fourth down conversions in January's playoff loss to the Giants. Two of the failed conversions came on bold fourth-and-short plunges from within field-goal range, plays that formed the front line in a stats-versus-sensibilities battle over optimal NFL strategies. Mike Smith's reasoning may have been sound, but he lost the battle, and the war.
If you subscribe to numerology, the Falcons' matching 0-for-3 performances symbolized their inability to make progress from last year to this year: The 0-for-3's matched the team's 0-3 playoff record under Smith too neatly to be shrugged off. Even without the Kabala overtones, the Falcons' continued lack of fourth-down success indicated that they still had not mastered the finer points of situational football, the little details that make the Giants so perennially dangerous. (The Giants, for the record, are 5-for-7 on fourth downs this season.)
So Snelling's conversion appeared to have some significance. The Falcons scored a few plays later and made a game of it. But faced with fourth-and-long late in the game, Ryan rolled out of the pocket and threw an ugly, desperate interception. The Falcons are now 1-for-5 on fourth downs for the season, 1-for-8 for the year. Perhaps they have made some progress. To reach the Super Bowl, they have to make a little more.
Prediction: Falcons 27, Giants 24
49ers at Patriots
8:20 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: 49ers by 5 ½
This matchup could tritely be summarized as "offense versus defense," or "old versus new." It is really something deeper: a battle between mythmaking and myth-maintenance.
All the stories that will ever be told about the Patriots have already been told. They beat an 11-1 team 42-14 on Monday night, and our collective response was: "yup." The Patriots exist in a Joseph Campbell ritualized cycle of death and rebirth: the offseason of machinations; the early-season stumbles; the resurgence, blowouts, and accusations of running up the score; their winter solstice crowning as unstoppable, eternal champions; their symbolic February death for the sin of hubris at the hands of Coughlin the Humility Demon. The story can be tweaked, but its core is impenetrable, and Patriots storylines are as comforting and predictable this time of year as Christmas carols.
The 49ers, by contrast, are still writing their mythology, which is a fitful process. Randy Moss contributed to the Colin Kaepernick mystique this week by saying that Kaepernick dislocated Moss' finger with a high-velocity pass. It's the kind of story that makes for a sizzling opening segment of some future episode of "Colin Kaepernick: A Football Life." There are two small problems: a) the whole concept of "Randy Moss: reliable narrator" is completely new and shocking (you can imagine Moss hurting his finger while writing angry restaurant reviews on Urbanspoon, then playing it off like Kaepernick's cannon was to blame), and b) a properly-thrown pass should probably not dislocate a receiver's finger. Kaepernick is athletic, and his passes surely sting, but Moss' finger could be remembered as fondly as the "Elway cross" or forgotten like Kyle Boller's ability to throw from his knees.
That is what mythology looks like in an embryonic state. Kaepernick is the NFL's next great franchise quarterback, or perhaps a tattooed Tebow with a better arm. Aldon Smith is a budding superstar or a cautionary tale in the making. Jim Harbaugh is either the new Mike Ditka or the crotchety old Mike Ditka. This week's Brandon Jacobs suspension was a necessary step to establish order as the team grows into a champion, or a warning signal about the limits of Harbaugh's institutional control. A win over the Patriots could validate two tumultuous months and turn the 49ers saga into a tale worth retelling. A loss could be the reality check that causes the Paul Bunyan stories that have begun clinging to Harbaugh and Kaepernick to start peeling away.
Given what we have seen from each of these teams in the last two weeks, it is hard to imagine new legends conquering the old. But then, perhaps a harsh, humbling beating is exactly the plot twist that the 49ers mythology needs.
Prediction: Patriots 30, 49ers 17
Packers at Bears
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Packers by 3
Packers rushing leaders, a 2012 season retrospective:
Game 1: Aaron Rodgers. Cedric Benson rushes nine times for 18 yards, Rodgers five times for 27 yards in a 49ers victory. Things get better from here. Barely.
Games 2 through 4: Benson. Somehow, Benson was the Packers' featured back for more than a month but had just one running play longer than nine yards: an 11-yarder. Remember, defenders are scattered all over the field in pass coverage when facing the Packers; Jerome Bettis could come out of retirement tomorrow and rip off a few 12-yard runs in this offense. (Ted Thompson probably tried to contact Bettis, who has Caller ID.) Let's check the thesaurus for synonyms for "plodding:" traipsing, lumbering, footslogging … that's the one! Benson footslogged for a month.
Weeks 5 through 8: Alex Green. Benson suffered a foot injury in the loss to the Colts. Green replaced him and rushed 10 times for 63 yards, including a 41-yard rush that must have looked like an ultra-marathon to Packers fans who watched Benson collapse in exhaustion after 27 feet all season long. Green immediately realized that he was overachieving and settled in for some 20-carry, 35-yard stat lines.
Games 9 through 12: James Starks. Starks returned from injuries and obscurity just as Green was in danger of churning out one too many sub-Benson performances. Almost on cue, Starks gained 74 yards on 25 carries, with a long run of 11 yards, as soon as he assumed featured-back duties against the Lions. Let's check the thesaurus again: clumping, schlepping, lurching … let's go with "clumping!"
As Starks clumped along, there was a real danger that receiver Randall Cobb would lead the team in rushing one week. Cobb has taken a handoff or two per week, either on an end-around or a shotgun draw, and he has averaged a remarkable 13.2 yards per carry all year. That means that Cobb's average carry is more than two yards longer than Benson's longest. Four average Cobb carries would have made him the Packers' rushing leader in many weeks, which may be why he has never been given more than three. Starks barely led the Packers in rushing in the Giants loss, with Rodgers and Green nipping at his 35-yard heels and Cobb providing the game's longest rush (12 yards). Starks came back for a very solid game against the Vikings. Then got injured.
Game 13: Green. With Starks, Benson and Johnny White injured (White suffered a concussion without taking the field, which is the kind of performance the Packers are starting to take for granted from their running backs), Thompson brought back Ryan Grant, signed former Jaguars backup DuJuan Harris and got on the phone to hound Harlan Huckleby. But Green came through with a solid performance against the Lions; history tells us it will not last.
Game 14: It's John Kuhn's turn. You can feel it.
Prediction: Packers 24, Bears 20
Broncos at Ravens
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Broncos by 2 ½
Here is what we should not expect from the Ravens offense now that Jim Caldwell has replaced Cam Cameron at coordinator: the Joe Flacco triple option; the Dennis Pitta wildcat; 25 carries per game for Vonta Leach. Everything else is in play. Caldwell has never called offensive plays before, but we can extrapolate from his days as quarterback coach and head coach in Indianapolis that he is a fan of the no-huddle offense, which Cameron installed and used early in the season, then forgot. Don't expect any wholesale changes, however. "Obviously, the Ravens offense is the Ravens offense," Caldwell said on Monday. So grab a pillow and some warm milk.
At press time, there was a chance Ray Lewis could return for Sunday's game. Lewis has been stalking the sideline with a photogenic sneer for two months, spouting tough-guy bromides to anyone within earshot. Basically, it was like having an over-pressurized hot water heater simmering on the sideline, wearing a skullcap. Caldwell had not yet determined as of Thursday whether he would coach from the sideline or the booth. Either way, Lewis should stand next to him, growling and shouting. The distraction would prevent Caldwell from calling anything but handoffs to Ray Rice. And the Ravens would win going away.
Prediction: Ravens 23, Broncos 17
Steelers at Cowboys
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Steelers by 1
Overcompensation is a psychological defense mechanism, an attempt to cover up a real or perceived deficiency by exaggerating a real or perceived strength. For example, a football player perceived as immature and trouble-inclined might overcompensate by trying to play through a serious injury to prove his toughness.
Compensation itself is natural, human and often beneficial, but overcompensation brings diminishing returns. A wide receiver who ignores the opinions of two doctors and tries to forgo surgery to play through a fractured finger risks a more severe injury, not to mention dropped passes and fumbles. Friends and employers can minimize the impact of overcompensation behavior by reassuring the individual and making it easier to make wiser choices. Unfortunately, friends are often too polite, and results-oriented employers may welcome the short-term gains that come when a worker "tries too hard."
Overcompensation behavior, like Dez Bryant's, stems from the same faulty decision-making process that damaged his reputation in the first place. A person who makes bad decisions during family disagreements or when selecting parking spaces will also make them when he leaves the doctor's office. Just because one of those decisions falls in the direction of "team-oriented" does not make it wise.
Overcompensation is best thought of as the brain's ego protection device. You can only imagine what Jerry Jones gets up to after a Cowboys loss.
Prediction: Steelers 22, Cowboys 17
Colts at Texans
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Texans by 9 ½
The Texans face the Colts twice in the final three weeks. Thanks to the Texans'42-14 "we're not worthy" panic inducer against the Patriots on Monday night, the Colts could clinch the AFC South with a sweep, plus either a win or a Texans loss in the middle game. The Colts, who have bent probability into little pretzel knots all season, know they have a shot. "It will be really good for us to learn how to prepare, stay within that moment of the process, and then go and play a big game on the road that may or may not decide whether we play at home or on the road," interim coach Bruce Arians said on Tuesday.
It's easy to be fooled by jarring recent events, like the Patriots taking a 21-0 lead on the Texans before Jon Gruden finished his first espresso-and-Red Bull. The Texans remain one of the NFL's best teams, albeit one that doesn't have a great plan when it gets jumped leaving the tunnel. The Colts are scrappy, lovable and inspirational and have a defense that could allow 100 rushing yards to a teddy bear. Prepare for a course correction, just as Arians is really preparing for a playoff road trip, and (hopefully) a chance to turn the reins back over to Chuck Pagano.
Prediction: Texans 34, Colts 21
Redskins at Browns
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Off (RG3)
If you do not have a man crush on Robert Griffin after his gutsy attempt to stay in the game after an ugly ankle injury, or his jovial, reassuring postgame press conference, or his jaunty return to (limited) practice this week, then it means one of two things. Either a) you are a woman, and therefore just have a traditional crush-crush, or b) you are dangerously out of touch with your feelings and need to let a puppy lick your face for a while so you can rediscover life's simple joys.
As a third option, you may be a talking head on "First Take." But that is a fate too horrible to mention.
Griffin's status for Sunday is uncertain, but here is some logical reasoning to help the Redskins make their decision. Either the Redskins are good enough to beat the Browns with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, or they are not. If they are good enough to beat the Browns with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, then Kirk Cousins should start at quarterback. If they are not good enough to beat the Browns with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, then they are not a serious playoff contender this year, and they should be focused on the long-term health and development of Griffin and the franchise. Therefore, Kirk Cousins should start at quarterback.
Airtight reasoning, right? Of course, Griffin is acting like he will play. Logic never gets very far in Redskins headquarters.
Prediction: Redskins 24, Browns 14 with Griffin; Redskins 19, Browns 14 without Griffin
Vikings at Rams
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Rams by 1
Adrian Peterson is closing in on Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards. It won't be easy - Peterson must average 169 rushing yards per game for the final three weeks - but Peterson has transformed from Purple Jesus to Purple Hulk. The harder it gets, the stronger he gets.
Peterson rushed for 154 yards against the Bears, who have the top-ranked defense in the NFL according to Football Outsiders. He rushed for 182 yards against the Seahawks, who have the second-best defense in the NFL. But when the Vikings face the Colts, who ranked 30th, Peterson gained just 60 yards. Meanwhile, the Vikings' receiver situation gets worse each week; soon, they are going to call Hassan Jones out of retirement.
You can probably guess what is going on with Peterson's statistics. Great defenses like the Bears and Seahawks can stifle every other element of the Vikings offense, but those defense are built to stop the passing game first (they rank fifth and 14th, respectively, in run defense), so the all-Peterson, all-day attack can still be very effective. Extrapolate too far, and Peterson's best chance of breaking Dickerson's record would come if his last three games came against the 1985 Bears, 1991 Eagles and 1929 Packers, who allowed just 22 points all season. The Rams are not quite that good, but the Vikings still will not be able to throw the ball at all, so Peterson should keep pace to smash puny records.
Prediction: Rams 20, Vikings 16
Buccaneers at Saints
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Saints by 3 ½
A rundown of the Saints headlines this week: Bounty suspensions overturned; Sean Payton reinstatement talks commenced; Drew Brees criticized Roger Goodell; Jonathan Vilma proceeded with his defamation of character suit; Gregg Williams claimed he tried to stop the pay-for-performance program (also, Genghis Khan just wanted to take the horses out for some wholesome dressage); Goodell refused to apologize; and Brees sued the organizer of a charity golf tournament for allegedly skimming funds (gosh, and "organizer of vague celebrity benefit events" sounds like such an honest profession).
This is what you call "a regular season completely overshadowed by off-field events," folks. I had to hit the "load more" button on the New Orleans Times-Picayune Saints website to find a story about a current Saints player that did not involve a legal matter. The story: Malcolm Jenkins missed Wednesday's practice. Without Jenkins, who will stop Vincent Jackson at the goal line after a 95-yard reception, then stuff a Buccaneers running back on third-and-goal, then make another touchdown saving tackle on the final drive? The answer probably lies in some affidavit somewhere.
Prediction: Buccaneers 28, Saints 21
Jaguars at Dolphins
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Dolphins by 8
Dolphins defensive back Reshad Jones visited the home of 101-year old Dolphins superfan Willie Pearl Porter this week. Check out this Miami Herald photo spread (it's impolite to call them "slideshows" if they are actually good) to see Jones signing jerseys for Porter and her daughter. And no, he doesn't sign them "Paul Warfield." Slide two shows Mrs. Porter sitting behind the TV tray she inherited from Hyman Roth. In frame 10, Jones actually tackles Porter, who puts up more resistance than Jones can expect from Jaguars running backs on Sunday.
Jones is having a Pro Bowl caliber season, but the Dolphins' lack of national buzz will hurt his chances. He should put a laptop on that TV tray and show Porter how to vote. If she can mobilize Florida's senior citizens to join her, Jones could end up bigger than U.S. Steel.
Prediction: Dolphins 21, Jaguars 13
Panthers at Chargers
4:05 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Chargers by 2 ½
Numerous reports have both Norv Turner and Chargers GM A.J. Smith getting fired at the end of the season, but horror movie rules always apply when dealing with Turner. Sever the head, burn the body, perform an ancient occult ritual to banish the soul to Tartarus once and for all, and it does not matter: The villain is back for the next sequel. Could a late-season flourish save Turner's job? The answer for any other coach would be "of course not," but Turner has survived through GM changes before: He outlasted Charlie Casserly when Dan Snyder purchased the Redskins in 1999.
Turner and Lou Saban are the only coaches in NFL history to have coached 200 or more games but amassed a sub-.500 record. Saban had two AFL championships to provide job security through the lean years. Turner had only his uncanny ability to remain employed, a powerful force that flickered back to life last week and should never, ever be underestimated.
Prediction: Chargers 24, Panthers 21
Seahawks at Bills (Toronto)
4:05 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Seahawks by 5 ½
Last week's 58-0 Seahawks blowout of the Cardinals was the third-best single game performance by any team in the last 20 years, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA statistic. Only the Redskins' 45-0 win over the Lions in 1991 and the Steelers' 43-0 win over the Browns in 1999 were more statistically impressive on a play-for-play basis.
Ah, but some people are accusing the Seahawks of running up the score against the Cardinals. Thanks to Twitter, some people are always accusing someone of something. Whatever their force, these "running up the score" debates need to be addressed head-on, especially now that the Patriots have a full head of steam. Therefore, NFL Lowdown has hired a new freelance contributor: Sister Sportsmanship, my seventh-grade teacher and a member of the Order of Immaculate Malevolence.
Sister Sportsmanship recently took a vow of silence - a "media mutiny," as she calls it - but can still communicate her opinions using the Morse Code of Catholic education: knuckle-whacks with a ruler. One rap means yes, the Seahawks ran up the score and must say a decade of the rosary as penance. Two raps means no: This is the NFL and the stakes are too high to get caught up in schoolyard concepts of sportsmanship, so write 50 times "I will not be reactionary for its own sake" in your marble composition book.
Well, Sister? The Seahawks inserted backup quarterback Matt Flynn and other subs midway through the third quarter. One of their late scoring drives consisted of a 33-yard Marshawn Lynch touchdown run at the end of six consecutive handoffs. Should the Seahawks have done something more sporting, like perhaps inserting honorary 12th-man Jon Kitna at quarterback for a few series?
Sister Sportsmanship: RAP! RAP! RAP!
Uh oh, three raps. Make sure your tie is straight and your shirttail is tucked, bro.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, Bills 17
Lions at Cardinals
4:05 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Lions by 7
Larry Fitzgerald has become a national symbol of stoic dignity in the face of humiliation. When Bills running back C.J. Spiller gets frustrated at his lack of touches or his team's general Bills-ness, he imagines a triple-covered Fitzgerald waiting for a John Skelton pass that won't come within six yards of him and adopts a WWLFD philosophy. "You look at that guy and he is not complaining," Spiller said. "They do not have the best quarterbacks over there, but he is still going out there, getting his job done and being a professional about his business."
The Cardinals need to capitalize on Fitzgerald's status as America's most prominent put-upon employee. Instead of hats and jerseys, they should market Successories-style posters: Fitzgerald dangling from a clothesline like a kitten, with the caption "Hang in There." They could also sell Angry Squawking Larry Fitzgerald Senior Bobbleheads: tap their heads and they shout "Blowout at Minnehaha." Another great idea: stress relief balls shaped like Fitzgerald's head, with his statistics from the last four games (six catches in a mind-boggling 37 pass attempts) stenciled onto them. Fitzgerald and his father would be the first two customers.
Prediction: Lions 28, Cardinals 3
Chiefs at Raiders
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Raiders by 3
Vic Tafur reported in the San Francisco Chronicle this week that Shane Lechler's Raiders career may soon end. Lechler is in the final year of his contract and is the highest-paid punter in NFL history (also the best pure punter in history, with apologies to a famous ex-Raider). The Raiders stashed rookie punter Marquette King on injured reserve so they would have a replacement handy. "I took it a little bit personal early," Lechler said, "but after that I was like, 'You know what? I can only worry about so many things around here.'"
Lechler played for eight different head coaches. He is probably the only person in the Raiders organization who can change the toner on the photocopier. You can picture him getting a phone call from Dennis Allen 10 minutes after signing a $25-million contract with the Redskins: "Shane? Shane? What's the Internet password again?" It's easy to joke that the Raiders will crumble without Lechler, but they crumbled just fine with him, so they might as well save some cash next year and see if King can be the next link in the NFL's only punting dynasty.
Prediction: Chiefs 22, Raiders 13
Jets at Titans
8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Titans by 1
According to the Football Outsiders playoff odds report, the Jets now have a 5.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, up 2.7 percent from last week. This is your cue to run to the warehouse store and stock up on batteries, powdered milk and cigarettes to be used as currency. Don't worry about finishing this article; there is only one paragraph left. Hurry. The end is nigh.
You are fully capable of writing your own apocalyptic scenarios: Bart Scott beating his chest over the accomplishment of beating some of the worst teams on Earth while three AFC North teams tripped over each other running for the same doorway; Tim Tebow running for a one-yard touchdown to beat the Patriots in the AFC championship and unleashing "Raiders of the Lost Ark"-caliber face-melting spirits of inanity, and so on. Our hope for society's survival rests with those 94.9 percent odds that the Jets fail to make the playoffs, and with the Titans' ability to suddenly get their act together at the most unlikely times.
Prediction: Titans 23, Jets 14