'Twas the week before Christmas, and all around the NFL, teams are hoping to find a playoff berth in their stockings. The Ravens and Giants have not been good boys this holiday season, but history shows that December failures can be forgiven on the road to the Super Bowl. Adrian Peterson does not need a magic sleigh to circle the earth, just a few more games. The Redskins can win the division but are greedy for more, while the Bengals are threatening to return a gift-wrapped shot at the AFC North crown. Everyone has a reason to hope -- even the Dolphins! -- but as this edition of Lowdown reveals, it takes more than hope and a hotshot rookie to be red hot for the holidays:
49ers at Seahawks
8:20 p.m. Sunday, NBC
The secret to building a successful organization is creating consensus and synergy among the coaches, scouts and front office.
(Editor's Note: We realize that the intro above sounds like it was lifted from "Principles of Corporate Management: A Boringly Thorough Analysis" (Fourth Edition), and that you are one pedantic sentence away from clicking over to The Onion or something. We are confident that the writer will get around to his point, or at least start telling "Pete Carroll is an old hippie" jokes, very soon.)
Coaches have pressing short-term needs. The front office must anticipate needs and salary cap concerns a year or two in advance. Scouting departments are also working months ahead, and they can develop their own "house leans" toward player types. The three departments share the ultimate goal of winning championships, but their more immediate goals could be miles apart. The coaches want a physical cornerback, now. The scouts have been focused on fast linebackers since two management shifts ago. The front office needs a three-tech tackle to replace the guy who is about to demand a contract extension. When the three departments fail to come together, a team starts making loopy decisions: trading away a 107-catch receiver just as it is about to develop a rookie quarterback, renting an All-Pro roster of high-priced defenders when the coaching staff has no plan for them, trading for a 1930s-style backup quarterback when there are needs at many other positions.
(Editor's note: If this gets any chewier, we will paste in some Jim Harbaugh "Saved By the Bell" jokes from an earlier essay. Rest assured that we are monitoring the situation closely.)
No team in the NFL has fostered consensus and synergy as well as the Seahawks in the last three seasons. Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider work hand-in-glove to acquire and develop talent that fits the Seahawks system. The scouting department has been outstanding at identifying both early and mid-round talent that fits Carroll's precise needs, particularly on defense. Drafts have been incredibly productive, trades and signings have been focused, and the Seahawks are nimble enough to quickly correct mistakes and missteps. We wouldn't be writing nice things about them at the top of a Lowdown in Week 16 if Matt Flynn spent the year throwing to crabby Terrell Owens and Braylon Edwards.
Gushing over Russell Wilson, while appropriate to a degree, misses the big picture: The Seahawks aren't hanging 58-point wins on opponents because Wilson runs a nasty read-option. They are doing so because Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright lead an outstanding defense built mostly around handpicked Schneider gifts for Carroll. They are winning because Schneider can cobble together a solid offensive line from high picks (Russell Okung), mid-round picks (Max Unger) and street free agents (Breno Giacomini).
The Seahawks are not in position to sew up a wild-card spot and threaten for a divisional upset simply because of a rookie sensation and Skittles. They are an organization. And while the 49ers may rate a slight talent edge at this moment, no team in the NFL is trending in the right direction quite like the Seahawks.
Prediction: 49ers 23, Seahawks 20
(Editor's Note: OK, that was a solid piece, despite the lack of gags. Now to go figure out what is up with that Bears capsule … )
Giants at Ravens
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Giants by 1 ½
Super Bowl-bound teams sometimes endure ugly late-season stretches. They get blown out or go on losing streaks. These stretches of ineptitude are forgotten by February, or are form-fit to a Facenda narrative (from the fiery crucible of adversity was forged the tempered steel of excellence), but when the teams were mired in them, these slumps felt like sure signs that they were foundering.
The 2007 Giants lost 41-17 to the Vikings in late November, then lost two of their final three games while fighting for a wild-card berth. The 2008 Cardinals lost late-season games by scores of 48-20, 35-14 and 47-7, always with something to play for. These Cardinals and Giants teams are often cited as mold-breakers among Super Bowl teams, but the presence of two mold breakers in the last five years should make you doubt the structural integrity of the mold.
There are other examples from the last decade, even if you eliminate Week 17 rest-fests by clinched teams. The Packers endured three close losses at the end of the 2010 season. The 2005 Steelers battled through a late-season three-game losing streak, with the Colts beating them 26-7 in the middle. The 2003 Panthers also had a three-game losing streak late in the year. The 2006 Colts lost 44-17 to the Jaguars in mid-December. You get the idea.
The Giants, therefore, did not prove themselves unworthy of the postseason with their 34-0 loss to the Falcons last week, nor have the Ravens precluded themselves from the Super Bowl discussion with their three-game losing streak. At the same time, Giants and Ravens fans have good reasons to think twice before buying plane tickets to New Orleans. For every blown-out team that made the Super Bowl above, there were many blown-out teams that simply rode out the year as teams capable of being blown out.
Last Sunday's games demonstrated a real late-season separation between top-tier contenders (49ers, Falcons, Packers, Texans, Broncos, Patriots in spirited defeat, and yes, the Seahawks) and the at-large playoff teams. The Ravens (clinched) and Giants (in sudden jeopardy) must solve some major problems if they hope to defeat the top-tier teams in the playoffs. For the Ravens, that means rediscovering the offensive adequacy that got them through the early season, while spackling over holes in the pass defense. For the Giants, it means finding the middle ground between 52-27 and 38-10 wins and 34-0 and 31-13 losses by winning games when Eli Manning is in "fire high" mode and the front four isn't getting enough pressure.
The good news for both teams is that one of them will win this week, putting some miles between them and their recent struggles. The better news is that if the Giants or Ravens turn a win into "the late-season spark that ignited the furnace and galvanized the iron resolve of a champion," they won't be the first team to do it.
Prediction: Ravens 27, Giants 24
Vikings at Texans
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Texans by 9
Adrian Peterson is getting better every week, and Lowdown has the 10th-grade honors-level mathematical analysis to prove it! Our team of researchers (me) entered Peterson's weekly rushing statistics into the Sports on Earth supercomputer (a TI-83 graphing calculator) and performed a complicated, proprietary statistical process (ordinary linear regression) to predict Peterson's rushing figures for the next two weeks. Hold on to your goggles, Eric Dickerson: Peterson's 2012 rushing can be modeled by the equation Yards = 10w + 54.4, where "w" is the week on the Vikings schedule.
According to this high-tech model, Peterson will rush for 204.4 yards this week and 214.4 yards next week, giving him a record-shattering 2,231 yards for the season. And if the Vikings reach the playoffs (there are multiple scenarios; none of them are likely, but they add up), Peterson will rush for 224.4 yards in the wild-card game, 234.4 in the second round, 244.4 in the NFC championship and 254.4 yards in the Super Bowl. The rest of the Vikings offense can worry about getting the 0.6 yards Peterson needs each week to round up.
Linear regression modeling has major limitations, but that never stops anyone else from misapplying the daylights out of it. In the fine spirit of over-fitting to the curve (a hobby economists pursue when they feel like ruining lives), the quadratic equation yards = .129w-squared + 8.06w + 59.6 models Peterson's data even better than the simple equation above. Using this model, Peterson will start rushing for 1,000 yards per week late in the 2015 season and will be able to run across the country every week if he plays until his mid-70s. It is probably just bad analysis, but with Peterson, you never know.
Prediction: Texans 27, Vikings 17
Bengals at Steelers
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Steelers by 3 ½
The Bengals have been the timid drivers in the left lane of the interstate all year, afraid to accelerate and zip past slow-moving tractor-trailers that have been the traditional pacesetters in the AFC North. Just when the Ravens and Steelers look like they have slipped a gear, the Bengals slow down as well, as if they don't know the route to the playoffs and are hoping to get there by following.
This is the steep incline you have been waiting for, Bengals. The Steelers have sustained multiple injuries at cornerback; it is not clear who will and won't play, but Ike Taylor definitely won't, and Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen are battling back from hip and ankle injuries that would probably warrant an extra week of rest if the circumstances weren't so dire. There is not a healthy player on the Steelers roster who can cover A.J. Green one-on-one, and the Steelers no longer have a pass rush great enough to hide it. Meanwhile, the Steelers have rushed for just 69 yards in back-to-back weeks, making them dangerously one-dimensional on offense. You have already edged past the Steelers in the standings. Step on it! Win your first game against a member of the Big Two since September of 2010!
Judging by the way the Bengals applied the brakes for the entire second quarter against the Eagles' Amish buggy last Thursday, the acceleration will not happen, and no one will be on cruise control in Week 17.
Prediction: Steelers 20, Bengals 16
Falcons at Lions
8:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: Falcons by 3 ½
Calvin Johnson is just 181 yards away from breaking Jerry Rice's single-season receiving mark. There are several ways he can break Rice's record against the Falcons. 1) All of the other Lions receivers could pull a Titus Young mutiny and decide to line up in the wrong place: the Pontiac Silverdome. It may be hard for Johnson to escape the triple coverage that comes from being the only receiver running a route, but Brandon Marshall has managed for the Bears all year. 2) Johnson could catch two short passes in front of Asante Samuel and then drag the cornerback 91 yards each time. 3) The Falcons could decide that last week's win was a "statement" game and turn this into another one of their "interrogative" games.
The Madden Curse would seem to fate Johnson to end the season with 1,847 yards, one short of Rice, but the Curse appears to have morphed into an ironic Faustian bargain, much less predictable than it was in the old "ACL tear" days. As bad as things have been for Johnson, battling tight coverage while those around him bumbled, he has not received any sympathy cards from Larry Fitzgerald.
Prediction: Falcons 27, Lions 24
Bears at Cardinals
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Bears by 5 1/2.
Three decades ago, in the wake of the USFL threat, Paul Tagliabue forged the Blame Deflection Crystal, a magical talisman that makes everything that goes wrong appear to be someone's fault other than the user. The NFL used the Blame Deflection Crystal to defeat the USFL, but it shattered during a 1987 replacement game, and its shards scattered around the NFL.
Mike Tice acquired one of the shards, and not only has he used it throughout his coaching career, but he has stolen shards from others. He snatched Jim Haslett's, then Norv Turner's. He has had his sights set on Lovie Smith's since his arrival in Chicago. If Tice steals it, he will become the most powerful force in the universe, able to juggle offensive linemen, develop horrible game plans, and troll StubHub with impunity. Until then, his powers can still be checked. Careful observers can still see that the Bears rank 29th in total yards, and have allowed the sixth-highest sack total in the NFL despite protection-heavy game plans, and that these shortcomings must fall at the feet of their autonomous offensive coordinator and former line coach. But how long before our minds, too, are clouded?
Ken Whisenhunt does not have a Blame Deflection Crystal shard. And even if he did, it would not help much at this point.
Prediction: Bears 19, Cardinals 6
Redskins at Eagles
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Redskins by 7
Robert Griffin practiced during the week and will probably be cleared to play. Kirk Cousins played extremely well in relief and could probably get the Redskins through another week if needed. The Redskins are suddenly favorites to win the division, and they have plenty of reasons to be excited about their most encouraging season of the last decade.
But the Redskins are also looking ahead to the offseason, when they can trade Cousins for wishes, dreams and sugarplums. Former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly told Mark Maske of the Washington Post that Cousins could net at least a second-round pick. "And if you can get a little competition going … you can maybe get two twos," Casserly said.
Whoa, slow down there: The kid just beat the Browns. Casserly may be forgetting that the Redskins themselves are the "competition" that shoots high-round draft picks around like spitballs. He cites Kevin Kolb as an example of a quarterback who fetched two second-round picks on the open market; assistant GMs around the league will also cite Kolb as an exact reason not to let that happen again. Teams like the Cardinals and Jets are not going to bite on Redskins leftovers. Geno Smith and Matt Barkley are going to start looking good again once the draft promenade starts. And teams willing to roll the dice at quarterback will have options like Alex Smith and Michael Vick …
Speaking of Vick, he is running the Eagles scout team and may not even dress this week. No one in Philadelphia has any illusions that he will fetch two second-round picks from some over-generous trade suitor. After all, the Redskins already have a quarterback.
Prediction: Redskins 30, Eagles 20
Bills at Dolphins
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Dolphins by 4
From the casual cruelties department: The Dolphins can still make the playoffs, but one of the teams with control over their fate is … the Jets! Yes, the Jets themselves are eliminated, but like the lousy neighbors who leave rusty car batteries on the front lawn and lower property values for a block in each direction, they still possess the power to take others down with them by failing extra hard.
To reach the playoffs, the Dolphins must win out, the Bengals must lose out, the Steelers must lose to the Browns in Week 17 (the Steelers will have already beaten the Bengals in this scenario), and the Jets must lose one more game. If the Jets, Dolphins and an AFC North team all manage to go 8-8, the Jets leapfrog over the Dolphins by virtue of the three-way common opponent tiebreaker system.
It's all rather complicated, but it boils down to the Dolphins' back-to-back losses to the Jets and Cardinals in September: The Jets later beat the Cardinals, so those two games had unexpected tiebreaker consequences. Think of the Cardinals loss as the $50 cable bill the Dolphins never paid when they moved out of their first apartment. It is now red-flagging their mortgage.
In summary, Dolphins fans have to watch Jets-Chargers after watching this game. It is really hard to be a Dolphins fan.
Prediction: Dolphins 24, Bills 17
Saints at Cowboys
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Cowboys by 1
The Cowboys are 5-1 in their last six games on the strength of three narrow wins against awful teams (the Browns, the Eagles twice) and two narrow come-from-behind wins against borderline playoff teams (the Bengals and Steelers). One interpretation of their winning streak is that they are "finding ways" to win close games or "learning" to finish opponents. Neither is very accurate or charitable to the Cowboys.
The easiest way to find a win against the Eagles and Browns is to look for one. They are lying around everywhere. The Cowboys found a win against the Bengals by standing around while the Bengals dropped passes, then making a few good plays at the last possible moment. Their performance against the Steelers was similar, if a little more solid. But when you realize that the Steelers are on the way down from a Super Bowl peak, while the Bengals are on the way up, you have to wonder about the Cowboys, a veteran-laden team that is still supposedly "learning" and "finding."
What the Cowboys really learned is that they are in the same soup as the Steelers and Bengals. That is better than being in the Browns-Eagles class, but it is about the same place they have been all of Jason Garrett's puppet regime tenure. They may enjoy another win against the utterly unpredictable Saints, but the Saints deserve credit for going from heaven to hell, then starting the journey back, in the time Jason Garrett has taken figuring out how to go 10-6.
Prediction: Cowboys 28, Saints 27
Titans at Packers
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Packers by 14
While the Packers prepare for the playoffs, team officials and Green Bay civic organizers are preparing to permanently light up the skies over their frozen city. A proposed $500,000 downtown Packers monument would include (brace yourself): two 27-foot tall standards shaped like a goalpost that would light up in green-and-gold at night; statues of Packers legends; a glass wall with etched murals of great moments in Packers history; two replica Lombardi trophies; and a statue of team founder George Calhoun sitting on a park bench, eyeing Packers fans with glad intent. What, no eternal flame or reflecting pool? Slackers.
The monument will transform Green Bay from a city famous only for football into a city famous for both football and a monument to football. With a $500 donation, you can have your name posted on the donors wall. That money could also supply food and toys to families displaced by Hurricane Sandy, and the Packers could fund the whole monument with a second-round pick's signing bonus, but whatever. If city planners hurry, they can get the monument up in time for Mason Crosby to practice his field goals into the lighted goalposts. An extra-large donation would get you a seat wide left or wide right, and a chance to take Crosby's kick home as a souvenir.
Prediction: Packers 27, Titans 13
Rams at Buccaneers
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Buccaneers by 3
Buccaneers players allegedly grumbled after Sunday's 41-0 loss to the Saints, asking, "Can we send these coaches back to college?" But wait, weren't there dozens of stories, both in training camp and during the team's four-game winning streak, about how Greg Schiano's collegiate, discipline-oriented coaching style had changed the Buccaneers' culture and re-instilled pride? How can both stories be true?
It's time for another edition of Workplace Reality Check, a series of reminders that an NFL team's headquarters is different from your place of business, but not all that different. Let's take a standard Schiano coaching tactic, like having players restart a poorly-executed drill from the beginning, and compare it to an everyday workplace technique that a new boss might employ, like making you redo some paperwork that was not filled out just right. Now, let's roleplay what goes through our minds when it happens at different points in a boss' tenure:
First Time Boss Makes You Redo It: Wow, this new manager sure means business. Perhaps I have been slacking a bit on the details. In fact, I should clean my workstation, roll my sleeves up and go the extra mile for a few weeks. This could be our best fiscal quarter ever!
Fiftieth Time Boss Makes You Redo It: That strutting martinet needs to back way off with the "my way or the highway" tactics or I am going to start burning sick days. This company isn't struggling because the TPS reports aren't stapled; it is struggling because we lack the vision of Big Easy Ltd., even after half of their managers got indicted! Sure, I will re-do this report. And then it's five hours of Minesweeper for me!
There you have it. This does not mean that Schiano is doomed, only that NFL teams have ever-changing needs, and that the best coaches learn to be flexible. One of Schiano's assistants, P.J. Fleck, is heading back to college to coach Western Michigan. The rest, particularly Schiano, are sticking around. Everyone in the organization has some growing pains to go through.
Prediction: Buccaneers 19, Rams 14
Browns at Broncos
4:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Broncos by 14
Trent Richardson criticized Pat Shurmur's game plan last week, which just means that he was paying attention. It was the second time that a Browns rookie criticized the coaching staff -- a concussed Brandon Weeden claimed that the team was not practicing pass patterns frequently enough in practice a few weeks ago -- and it would indicate a lack of managerial control by Shurmur if we needed any indicators. According to the latest scuttlebutt, the Browns -- who have been mired in non-stop front office skullduggery since their rebirth in 1999 -- are courting Josh McDaniels, the guy who thought "Glengarry Glen Ross" was a managerial best practices seminar while in Denver. Forget splashing cold water: Jimmy Haslam is trying to put out a grease fire by throwing lighters at it.
Prediction: Broncos 27, Browns 10
Patriots at Jaguars
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Patriots by 15 ½
While the Patriots shake off a not-too-surprising knockdown by the 49ers and resume their regularly scheduled 41-10 wins, we offer this bit of wisdom that came up during a rap session on Twitter. (Thanks to @john_higg for steering me on this). The Jaguars drafted punter Bryan Anger in the third round, exactly five slots ahead of Russell Wilson.
Anger is by far the best rookie punter in the NFL, with a 42.2-yard net average. Therefore the Jaguars got the best rookie in the league at his position, passing up a guy who is second or third (or even first, but not by an Anger margin) at his position. When the all-rookie teams are announced, Anger will be on every single one of them; Wilson will only be on a few. That is a decisive vindication of the Anger selection. It is this foresight and personnel acumen that makes the Jaguars who they are.
Gene Smith: Feel free to copy and paste the above paragraph, unattributed, into your end-of-year performance evaluation to Mr. Khan. It probably will not help.
Prediction: Patriots 41, Jaguars 10
Raiders at Panthers
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Panthers by 9 ½
Panthers games are not won or lost on the field, but in full-page ads in the Charlotte Observer. Veteran center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad at the beginning of the season predicting a Super Bowl; on Monday, a group of Panthers Personal Seat License holders took out a full-page ad to criticize owner Jerry Richardson.
The advertisers probably should have called upon Sterling Cooper to punch up their message. Here is an excerpt from their message on Ron Rivera:
"His reported salary is 40-50 percent below the salaries of the top ten highest paid NFL head coaches who, not surprisingly, also happen to have the best winning records in the league. Now, after a few inconsequential, late season wins, you are hinting that you might keep Rivera around for at least another year. Of course, that would avoid millions of dollars of severance cost for you and your partners. It would also perpetuate the legacy of Panthers' management, player personnel and coaching inadequacies that is revealed on the playing field most Sundays."
You know, "Fire Rivera" might fit on the bumper sticker a little better, but it would lack the passive-aggressive corporate-speak panache. We would call the paragraph above an "elevator pitch," but there are no buildings that tall anywhere in the Carolinas.
This would be a good place for a "print is dead" joke, but if you want to get a cranky septuagenarian like Jerry Richardson's attention, position your ad as close to "Dear Abby" as possible. "Our focus right now is for a strong finish that can lead to better things to come," team spokesman Charlie Dayton said about the ad; Richardson has spent the last two months throwing the good tableware at anyone who approaches him, and was therefore unavailable for comment.
Rivera knows that he must win the next two games if he hopes to perpetuate the legacy of coaching inadequacy. The Raiders shut their opponent out last week, but no one noticed. It pays to advertise.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Raiders 16
Chargers at Jets
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Jets by 1
Good comedy requires a straight man. Lou Costello had Bud Abbott. Gracie Allen had George Burns. Howard Stern has Robin Quivers, Peter Cook had Dudley Moore, and Daffy Duck had Porky Pig. The straight man (sometimes a woman, but the term is idiomatic, like "man coverage" in women's basketball) makes the comic's antics seem zanier by acting flummoxed or exasperated. Pair two pure comics into one act, and they will start fighting for the laughs and making each other look bad by not letting the material breathe, creating the comedy equivalent of a quarterback controversy.
That was a long way of saying that this game is going to be terrible, and with two silly teams participating, it probably won't even be funny.
Prediction: Jets 4 (two safeties on a blocked punt and intentional grounding in the end zone), Chargers 3
Colts at Chiefs
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Colts by 7 ½
If I can remove the Groucho glasses for a moment, seeing these two teams facing each other is a reminder of just how difficult this season has been. It is hard to be funny while tiptoeing away from leukemia, domestic violence and suicide, to say nothing of devastating hurricanes and national tragedies so heart-wrenching that their impact spills onto the football field. Too many of the images we will take away from the 2011 season are of ChuckStrong posters, moments of silence and scribbled messages to shattered communities on players' cleats.
The Colts can clinch the postseason with a win. Chuck Pagano has been medically cleared to return to the team. The Chiefs are preparing for a franchise reorganization, so fans can look forward to the excitement of new coaches and new ideas. One way or the other, football offers the possibility of hope, which is something we can always use.
Prediction: Colts 27, Chiefs 14