Before you burn your quarterback's jersey, READ THIS ARTICLE! You may learn that the Eagles and Giants have had worse simultaneous seasons than this one. You may learn that your quarterback is getting sacked at a historic rate, or that your offensive line is populated by men named "Lemuel." You might learn who the Falcons "Unknown Receiver" is. You may even get a straight answer from Bill Belichick. So put down the matches, and for heaven's sake don't change your name to "Hitner:" Game Riffs are on the Internet, not in print, and therefore do not burn very well.
Texans at 49ers
8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: 49ers by 7 ½
In these times of political chaos, social turmoil and global uncertainty, there is one thing that all Americans can agree upon: Buying a Matt Schaub jersey specifically so you can burn it in effigy is the stupidest thing a human being can possibly do.
Whatever we think of Schaub's strengths and weaknesses -- he still has plenty of the first, though a rapidly increasing supply of the second -- he never did anything to any of us personally. He did throw an ugly game-changing interception in the Seahawks loss, but gee whiz, Jay Cutler and Joe Flacco combined for eight interceptions last Sunday, none of them into the hands of the best cornerback in the NFL. You don't see anyone burning them in effigy.
(Jay Cutler effigies smell like Macanudos. He lights a few himself during offseason patio parties. Joe Flacco effigies stand motionless and silent, and therefore are indistinguishable from the real thing.)
Schaub knew he was in trouble before the Richard Sherman pick-six, but he did not have the liberty of calling an audible. News of Schaub's restrictions prompted people who never think about audibles and have no idea how audible systems work to comment on the Texans audible system. "Ah-hah! Gary Kubiak has zero confidence in Schaub and does not trust him to make decisions. HAND ME THAT BOOK OF MATCHES." As it turns out, many offensive systems have restricted audible possibilities.
Long story short, the Seahawks anticipated that the Texans might attempt the occasional play-action rollout pass. Who knew? Well, anyone who has watched 20 minutes of Texans football in the last five years, of course.
Texans fans try a little too hard, coming across as caricatures of East Coast-style zealots. They declare the Ravens archrivals and froth at the mouth in anticipation of facing an opponent they have beaten exactly once and thinks of them as a playoff speed bump. The Schaub effigy sounds like an attempt to act like Eagles fans. If Eagles fans lit quarterback jerseys on fire, the Great Hoying Conflagration of 1998 would have toasted the city, and the still-burning McNabb warehouse would be visible from space. Texans fans need to talk to their parents, the Oilers fans: Luv Ya Blue, House of Pain and all that positive fan energy. No one ever lit a Dan Pastorini jersey on fire, and Earl Campbell jerseys don't burn.
No one is burning 49ers jerseys, but safety Donte Whitner is selling T-shirts that read #LegalHitner to defray the costs of a $21,000 fine he incurred on a hit in the end zone last Thursday night. The tee-shirts cost $28. So you can spend $28 to financially support someone who makes more than $3 million per year, and to fight the injustice of a wealthy person paying a modest fine for doing something borderline dangerous. As a bonus, you get to wear something that's one letter away from earning a knowing smile from that bald guy at the gym with the creepy tats.
Buying and burning a Matt Schaub jersey remains the stupidest thing that a human being can do. But we now have a strong runner-up.
Prediction: 49ers 26, Texans 24
Eagles at Giants
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Giants by 1
The Giants and Eagles are rarely terrible at the same time. Therefore, Eagles-Giants games almost always have something at stake for one of the teams. And of course, many of their meetings are legendary. It's rare for both the Eagles and Giants to enter a game in salvage mode.
So this game has the potential to be one of the worst games in Eagles-Giants history: sure, there have been some 62-10 blowouts, but they were at least significant 62-10 blowouts. Here are five other candidates for Worst Eagles-Giants Game Ever, as chosen by both quality of participants and quality of game and listed in reverse chronological order:
Giants 20, Eagles 0, Nov. 22, 1998. The win made the Giants 4-7 and the Eagles 2-9. For Eagles fans, the game can be summed up in two words: Bobby Hoying. Hoying threw two interceptions and took six sacks. The Giants answered with Kent Graham, who completed 10-of-21 passes but threw a touchdown pass to Tiki Barber, who back then was the third down back behind … wait for it … Gary Brown and Charles Way. The Eagles finished 3-13 under Ray Rhodes, the Giants 8-8 under Jim Fassel.
Giants 23, Eagles 0, Nov. 20, 1983. Ali Haji-Sheikh led the scoring with three field goals. Butch Woolfolk and John Tuggle added a rushing touchdown each. Ron Jaworski was benched after a 1-of-9 start, with an interception. Joe Pisarcik and Dan Pastorini replaced him, and the Eagles went 7-for-27 passing. The Eagles finished 5-11 at the start of the Marion Campbell era. The Giants finished 3-12-1 early in the Bill Parcells era. One of those eras is actually an era.
Eagles 10, Giants 0, Oct. 31, 1976. Happy Halloween, Bicentennial America! The Eagles are 2-5, the Giants 0-7! Mike Boryla (younger Eagles fans: Mike Boryla was the Bobby Hoying of the 1970s) threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Harold Carmichael, Horst Muhlmann added a 29-yard field goal before halftime and both teams figured that was enough excitement for those complicated times. Ray Rhodes caught two passes in the game; he would switch to cornerback the next year and then haunt this series 22 years later. The Eagles would finish 4-10, the Giants 3-11, but like Parcells in the last paragraph, Dick Vermeil was about to go on to better things.
(Note: This was not the Vince Papale Invincible game in which he forced a punt return fumble. That was the earlier Eagles-Giants 1976 meeting, in Philly. The highlight of this era was a special teams play, which says it all.)
(Second Note: John Idzik, father of the current Jets general manager, was the Eagles offensive coordinator that year. Idzik is portrayed by an uncredited Colin Firth in Invincible)
Eagles 20, Giants 16. Nov. 25, 1973. The worst thing about this game between the 3-6-1 Eagles and 1-8-1 Giants is that they tied in a previous meeting. Yes, ties were more common in those days, but nothing drains enthusiasm from an event like saying "both teams are awful, and they tied in their last meeting!" Roman Gabriel threw a touchdown to Don Zimmerman, Tom Sullivan added a three-yard rush and Tom Dempsey added two field goals to give the Eagles a 20-6 lead; a Giants comeback by the backfield of Randy Johnson and Ron Johnson (which would have made fantasy football a blast) came up just short. The Giants would finish 2-11-1 under Alex Webster. The Eagles went 5-8-1 under Mike McCormick, but their offense was nicknamed the Fire High Gang because Gabriel would throw high and super-tall receivers like Zimmerman and Carmichael would leap for the throws. The Fire High Gang predictably gave way to the Shattered Ribcage Alliance.
Giants 14, Eagles 0, Nov. 8, 1942. The Giants were 2-4 entering the game, the Eagles 0-8, and a little thing called World War II made our government shutdown look as historically significant as a coffee spill on the Senate floor. Hank Soar and Andy Marefos scored second-quarter touchdowns for the Giants, then everyone rushed home to donate scrap metal. Not much detail survives from this game, but the Eagles rushed 37 times for 20 yards according to the available statistics. Those are some numbers to give Chip Kelly nightmares.
Will this game be as moribund as those? Will Chip Kelly emerge as a Parcells-Vermeil character from the wreckage? One thing is certain: RAY RHODES MUST NOT BE ALLOWED ANYWHERE NEAR THIS GAME.
Prediction: Eagles 20, Giants 16
Ravens at Dolphins
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Dolphins by 3
Ryan Tannehill is on pace to get sacked 72 times this year. Here are the NFL's all-time single-season sack leaders, and their team's records that year:
Cunningham, by the way, was not even the Eagles starter in 1986. You can read about it here.
The list is not a total loss, as you can see: Ken O'Brien's 1985 Jets were a playoff team. Tannehill is a little like O'Brien: Both were in-the-shuffle members of an epic quarterback class, both joined franchises that stalled at 7-9 for a few years. O'Brien and the Jets followed eleven wins in 1985 with ten more In 1986, then resumed their stubborn mediocrity for the next decade. The Dolphins may want to go 11-5, but they do not want to do it the way the 1985 Jets did. (Also, sack rates were higher then, but that's a topic for another time.)
Having watched film of all 18 of Tannehill's sacks, plus a bunch of the near misses, Game Riffs can offer the following advice to keep Tannehill and the Dolphins out of the record books.
- Asking right tackle Tyson Clabo to block quality pass-rushers at this point in his career is a bad idea.
- Tying your pass protection in knots so Clabo doesn't block those pass rushers is a worse idea. Charles Clay cutting Robert Mathis at the line, then running a pass route? Bad idea. Rookie tight end Dion Sims versus Osi Umenyiora? It should go without saying, but bad idea.
- Inside stunts give the guards fits, and neither running back is making a name for himself in blitz pickup.
- The Dolphins probably figured this out 45 minutes into training camp, and pointing it out now feels like rubbing it in, but Jonathan Martin was not really ready to slide over to left tackle.
- Tannehill's pocket clock has got to speed up a little, since problems a, c, and d will not solve themselves easily.
That's quite a to-do list, but the Dolphins had better get ready, because they have not really faced an outstanding pass rush yet (although the Browns are getting there). Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil could keep Tannehill on schedule to break a record. That would be terrible, because you have to think really, really hard to remember the days when you were really excited about the future of David Carr.
Prediction: Ravens 19, Dolphins 14
Patriots at Bengals
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
The loss of Vince Wilfork (Achilles) for the year is a serious blow to the Patriots defense. But at least it finally forced Bill Belichick to make a definitive statement about a player injury, right? "I think he's got a pretty serious injury and it's probably unlikely that he'll be able to play again this year," Belichick told WEEI on Monday, hours after stonewalling reporters completely about Wilfork at his press conference.
Probably unlikely? Coach, he underwent surgery to repair a torn tendon that runs from the heel up the ankle, on the last day of September. He issued a statement thanking his wife and fans for support, sounding as if he were flying a one-man mission to Pluto and was not sure if he would see the light of Earth's sun again. Can we get something a little more forthright, just once, than the double-vague probably unlikely?
Actually, probably unlikely is the Belichick equivalent of "the Soviet premier has a cold" in the 1980s. Wilfork's statement at least gave confirmation that he is still alive.
At least Marvin Lewis won't beat around the bush. The Bengals failed to score a touchdown against the Browns, and Andy Dalton was the obvious culprit. Dalton has found A.J. Green on just 17 of 37 passes in the last three games, with no completions longer than 20-yards, and the big play receiver was clearly frustrated on Sunday. Right, coach? "There's a lot of question about how Andy did. I thought he made a lot of good throws … We also have to help him out and make sure we're in the right spots all the time for him, so it doesn't all fall on his shoulders."
Right spots? Coach, Mohamed Sanu got about three steps beyond his defender on a flea flicker. That's about as right a spot as a receiver can get into, but Dalton underthrew Sanu so badly that he practically had to stop and turn around. Dalton has been scattering throws all season. We know you don't want to tie the kid to the railroad tracks. But could one of you veteran coaches please, please stop responding to "how's the weather outside" questions with "the atmosphere could be doing a few things better" deflections?
As usual, it is hard to make a selection in this game when we don't know the status of Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola. Hey coach, can you give us an update … oh, never mind.
Prediction: Bengals 26, Patriots 20
Chiefs at Titans
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Chiefs by 2 ½
It's time to revise predictions for the Chiefs final record. Most of us had them coming in at 6-10 (though Pro Football Weekly, rest her soul, had them at 10-6), so we are only a few weeks away from looking pretty silly.
The Chiefs will beat the Ryan Fitzpatrick Titans this week. Though 3-1, the Titans are up to their usual tricks. Kenny Britt is wandering the sidelines drinking Gatorade. Chris Johnson is averaging 3.3 yards per carry and trolling fantasy owners. Nate Washington is leading the team in receiving yards again, a sure sign that nothing has changed in Tennessee, and while Fitzpatrick is better than the typical Titans backup, Rusty Smith is back on the active roster, and Kerry Collins is warming up somewhere in America. The Titans have committed zero turnovers through four games, which is terrific, but cannot go on much longer.
So pencil in a win for the Chiefs on Sunday, then two losses against the Broncos (though the Chiefs secondary matches up really well with those receivers). Three wins in four Chargers-Raiders games sounds reasonable. Let's call the Texans and Browns homestand a win and a loss, though we may have to reverse the order. Road trips to Buffalo and Redskins: let's be conservative and call that a split. The Week 16 game against the Colts is too far away and too much of a toss-up between surprising teams right now: Let's give it to the Chiefs, because we were conservative elsewhere.
That adds up to 11 wins, with zero reaches. Wild Card hopefuls like the Dolphins, Colts-Texans, the AFC North and even the Titans should be worried. Mike Harris' playoff odds report at Football Outsiders gives the Chiefs a 76.3 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. The Chiefs are true bracket busters. Who knew?
Only Pro Football Weekly. And dead magazines tell no tales.
Prediction: Chiefs 27, Titans 16
Saints at Bears
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Monday night's Saints victory introduced the football world to the promising rookie class humming beneath the hood of the Brees-Payton hotrod. Undrafted Khiry Robinson has replaced Chris Ivory (and injured afterthought Mark Ingram) as the compact bruiser who grinds out first downs at the ends of games. Kenny Stills filled in for Lance Moore and gave the Saints back their too-many-weapons advantage in the passing game. On defense, safety Kenny Vacarro is everywhere, in the secondary and off the blitz, while 360-pound John Jenkins is the perfect Rob Ryan nose tackle, big enough to demand a double team but nimble enough to run down ball carriers from behind.
Of course, the best rookies are often the ones you don't have to rely on. Jahri Evans returned at guard on Monday, meaning Tim Lelito can return to the bench and try to forget Darnell Dockett for a while. Moore (wrist) could return soon, though he missed midweek practices. Brodrick Bunkley (calf) is running individual drills, and Roman Harper (knee) should also be back soon, taking some pressure off Jenkins and Vaccaro. The Saints will need their veterans. This two-week road trip to Chicago and Foxborough will provide a much truer test of the Saints playoff worthiness than the most recent Brees home coronation ceremony.
Though if we are still talking about Jay Cutler's throwing mechanics next week, then the Saints can start all the young Lelitos they want.
Prediction: Saints 27, Bears 24
Jaguars at Rams
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Rams by 12 ½
No Jaguars Game Riff until they score an offensive touchdown in the first half of a game. Or at least finish painting their helmets. What a shame, because this one would have seared a hole in your corneas.
Prediction: Rams 16, Jaguars 9
Lions at Packers
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Packers by 7 ½
It's October, which means that it's time for a four-alarm running back emergency in Green Bay! Eddie Lacy is back from his concussion, and fellow rookie Jonathan Franklin has had a week to rebound from (or dwell upon) his game-losing fumble against the Bengals. (This is Green Bay, not Pittsburgh, so Franklin did not spend the last two weeks buried up to his neck beside an anthill with his face wrapped in Fruit Roll-Ups.) But James Starks and John Kuhn are hurt, so undrafted rookie Michael Hill is now the third-stringer behind Lacy and Franklin. Hill is Missouri Western State University's all-time leading rusher. Never seen him or heard of him? This calls for one of those small-college highlight montages, with the obligatory hip-hop soundtrack!
Can you imagine Ted Thompson sitting in his office, bopping to Wiz Khalifa, watching tapes like these and grabbing the telephone: "Get me this Hill kid, whatever it takes! Black-n-yellow-black-n-yellow"? Scouting does not work that way. It would be a lot cooler if it did.
Also on the Packers injury report: Clay Matthews, hamstring. Probably a bigger deal. This year's Lions are about 60 percent less idiotic mistake prone than previous models. If that percentage holds up, look out.
Prediction: Lions 28, Packers 20
Seahawks at Colts
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Seahawks by 2 ½
Bruce Irvin returns from suspension for the Seahawks, but giving them another defender is like giving them 50 more screaming fans: they have that area covered. They need reinforcements on the offensive line. Breno Giacomini had arthroscopic surgery this week to remove some sharp provolone deposits from his knee and will miss 2-4 weeks; rookie Michael Bowie will play right tackle in the meantime. Left tackle Russell Okung is on injured reserve, with former right guard Paul McQuistan taking his place and James Carpenter subbing at guard. Center Max Unger is expected back soon, but the team says it will be cautious with him. Until then, Lemeul Jeanpierre is the starter; the Seahawks signed him in 2011 as an undrafted rookie out of an 18th century French satirical novel.
So, how did Bowie do against the Colts? "He survived the game," Pete Carroll said. And McQuistan? "He's surviving." (Jeanpierre got a glowing review from the coach, but Jeanpierre keeps a guillotine by his locker, and Carroll is too smart to get in the way of a revolution.) When J.R. Sweezy is your Rock of Gibraltar, you are in downright Herculean straits, and the Seahawks are in prime position for an upset against a pesky Colts defense and unpredictable offense.
Prediction: Colts 20, Seahawks 13
Panthers at Cardinals
4:05 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Panthers by 2
If you missed the earth-shattering Panthers news before their bye week, Ron Rivera actually went for it on fourth down in a non-desperate situation. (Gasp). In field-goal range. (Shudder). And exercised some creativity, moving Mike Tolbert from fullback to tailback and inserting an extra offensive lineman (aneurysm, clunk, nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn).
"With the way we were playing defensively, I really felt like if we didn't get it, we could keep them down there," Rivera said after the game. "I felt that comfortable with the defense, and I also felt good about the offense." In other words, Rivera's two-plus years of arch-conservatism was caused by his belief that his team could not get the job done, yet his team could not get the job done primarily because of his arch-conservatism. There's an after-school special in there somewhere.
If Rivera gets any more comfortable, he may start going for it in other statistically-favorable situations. In a year or so, he could become as comfortable as … Mike Smith. Every silver lining has a fourth-and-one cloud.
Prediction: Panthers 24, Cardinals 13
Broncos at Cowboys
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Broncos by 8 ½
Jerry Jones has been talking a lot about point spreads lately. After the Cowboys loss in Kansas City, he pointed out that the Cowboys were underdogs entering the game, almost as a justification for the loss. Last week, he expressed surprise that the Cowboys would be favorites on the road against the Chargers. As it turned out, the wiseguys were wrong and Jones' pessimistic handicapping of his own team proved correct. The Cowboys are 3-1 against the spread, but they appear to be 4-0 against Jones' spread, which is a problem on many levels, starting with the level at which they are 2-2.
Jones the handicapper must know that he could play a part in creating the biggest point spread in NFL history. If the Broncos blow out the Cowboys, and the Jaguars do anything less than dunk Jim Brown and Mike Singletary in the Fountain of Youth and put half-painted helmets on them, we're going to need scientific notation to express the Jaguars-at-Broncos spread next week. Conversely, the Cowboys could deflate both expectations and spreads with an upset. To hear Jones talk these days, however, he's probably content to just cover.
Prediction: Broncos 36, Cowboys 27
Chargers at Raiders
11:30 p.m. Sunday, NFL Network
Line: Chargers by 4
Any game that starts this late should be introduced by one of those "groovy movie" hosts of yesteryear, the guys who dressed up like thriftshop vampires:
Greetings, boys and ghouls, and welcome to the Midnight Creature Double Feature. First, a spooky tale of an ordinary quarterback who is zapped by gamma rays and turned into an even more ordinary quarterback. Gasp as he is demoted to third string! Cringe at the terrifying supporting cast! Brace yourselves for Matt Flynn as The Incredible Shrinking Prospect. Then, an entire football franchise, despite playing pretty well, disappears in the California desert with no media attention whatsoever. Government experiment? Alien abduction? Can the Chargers find their way home? Will they even have a home to find? Make sure you have clean underwear for the horror classic: The Invisible Franchise. Spoooooooooky.
Prediction: Chargers 21, Raiders 17
Jets at Falcons
8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Falcons by 10
The Falcons are 3-of-11 on trips to the red zone in their last two games. Let's breakdown their play selection and see if we can spot the problem:
Five passes to Tony Gonzalez, one touchdown. No problem there.
Four passes to Roddy White, zero touchdowns. Can't argue with trying to feed Roddy.
Three passes to Julio Jones, zero touchdowns. Just three? Who else is getting the ball here?
Three passes to Henry Douglass, zero touchdowns. Well, maybe Douglass is drawing softer coverage…
Three passes to Jacquizz Rodgers, zero touchdowns. Um…
Three running plays to Jacuizz Rodgers, zero touchdowns. You know, Jacquizz is great, but he is not exactly a goal-line back. They should try someone bigger.
Four rushing plays to Jason Snelling, zero touchdowns. Snelling is certainly bigger. Wait a minute: seven total rushes on eleven red zone trips? There's your problem! But there are other problems.
Two passes to Jason Snelling, one touchdown. A shovel pass to Snelling is a snovel pass. A team can only get so far on snovel passes.
Two passes to Unknown Receiver, no touchdowns. These passes were deflected. The Unknown Receiver is not Julio Jones with a bag over his head.
Two passes to Levine Toilolo, one touchdown. Wholio? Coolio? HAND OFF OR THROW TO JULIO JONES, EVEN IF HE HAS A BAG OVER HIS HEAD.
The Falcons red zone dilemma may get worse before it gets better: Steven Jackson is out for a while, and left tackle Sam Baker is hurt, so there will continue snovel passes and Toilolo. The Jets probably don't quite have an upset in them, but Rex Ryan could take inspiration from Bill Belichick's late-game strategy and use this defense against the Falcons at around the 10-yard line:
Prediction: Falcons 26, Jets 17
Bye week: Bucaneers, Redskins, Steelers, Vikings