That's not Jock Jams you hear in the Week 6 background. It's the bell tolling for some slow-starting, bad-behaving teams. Dominic Raiola and the Lions must be ready for a tuba solo from the Browns, who need a win before they sing "Happy Birthday" to their quarterback. The cash registers are no longer ringing for RGIII, there's a buzz around the Jets and Todd Haley is singing "Sledgehammer" to the beat of banging gavels. The Ravens are bringing back grunge, the Chargers are hoping for Eine kleine nachtmusik and the Chiefs defense is enjoying the sounds of silence. And just what is Tom Brady hearing? The fat lady singing? Award show walk-off music? The ever-musical Game Riffs suggest it may be nothing but a key change.
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Patriots by 2 ½
Hall of Fame quarterbacks create images that linger in our memories for decades. John Elway gave us his laser spirals over the middle. Joe Montana had those crisp slants. Fran Tarkenton scrambled around in circles in the snow. Peyton Manning will point, bark, gesticulate and audible for all eternity. And who will forget Brett Favre's Wrangler commercials and un-retirement press conferences, which successfully eradicated all memories of his on-field accomplishments?
Drew Brees' signature image is of the simple play-action bomb. For all the intricacies of Sean Payton's playbook, Brees is always most dangerous when faking a handoff, taking a deep drop and floating a pinpoint pass into the hands of one of his zillions of great receivers. He uncorked a vintage gem early in last week's victory over the Bears, a perfect 38-yarder to Jimmy Graham to set up a touchdown. It was easy to watch that play, close your eyes and imagine it was 2009 again.
Tom Brady gave us so many signature memories, from the launch-and-catch to a triple-covered Randy Moss to the surgical no-huddle dink to Wes Welker. (And, yes, let's mention The Tuck to appease Raider Joe and the P8riot H8rs. Done). Last week, Brady did nothing to remind anyone that it was 2007, 2011, or 2004-05 again. He underthrew receivers by yards, led them too far and took too many sacks. Sure, there were dropped passes, blitz jailbreaks, fourth-quarter downpours and plays where Nate Solder was the primary receiver, but Brady's undermanned, inexperienced supporting cast had clearly rubbed off on him in Week 5, just as it did in Weeks 1, 2, 3 and part of 4.
This is New England shoegaze season, where Bostonians rend garments over their 4-1 football team while preparing to self-immolate over the Red Sox. One ugly loss does not prompt a reading from the Brady Lamentations, though one ugly loss, three ugly wins, and a major injury on defense are reasons for concern. Monday night's Jets victory over the Falcons revealed that the Patriots have not beaten a truly good team this year. The Patriots need some good news.
Rob Gronkowski's latest health news would qualify as "good" if he had not spent the last month slow-fading from the injury report. Gronk has been "possible," "highly likely," and "guaranteed to catch 15 passes" for several weeks now, and anyone who believes a Patriots injury report needs to answer that email from the Nigerian prince immediately. If Gronk plays, Brady can go back to the way things were. If not, he must conjure one more new image to define the 2013 season. It's a high priority, because once we stop making new memories, we stop living.
Prediction: Saints 26, Patriots 17
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8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Cowboys by 5 ½
It is the nature of mature young people to keep maturing. So it was no surprise to learn that Redskins coaches have seen growth in Robert Griffin this season, even though many fans thought of him as a finished product last season and a rickety, uncertain disappointment this year. Coaches noted last week that Griffin has gotten smarter in 3rd-and-long situations, which was his greatest weakness last year: he is now more comfortable buying time, checking down and letting his receivers do their jobs. "That's showing his maturation as a quarterback and being able to manipulate the pocket a little bit and make some key plays on third downs," quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur told the Washington Post.
While Griffin grows, his jersey sales shrink. His jersey was the No. 1 seller at NFL Shop, but it has fallen to fifth behind Colin Kaepernick, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and Adrian Peterson. Ryan Tannehill and Tom Brady are gaining on Griffin. It makes you wonder: Who suddenly wakes up in 2013 and wants a Tom Brady jersey that does not already have a closet full of them? And also, what does Andrew Luck have to do to get some love?
While Griffin battles growing pains and Tony Romo battles Romo pangs, D'Angelo Hall will battle Dez Bryant. Bryant has been impossible to cover for five weeks, while the Redskins defense has allowed 324 passing yards per game. "It's going to be a hell of a football game," Hall said. "Any time you have a chance to go against somebody that you feel is one of the best, you're going to try to rise to the occasion."
Hall has two interceptions against the Cowboys in his long career, one while covering Bryant last year. Bryant has caught 27 passes for 403 yards and three touchdowns in five meetings with the Cowboys. It looks like Bryant has been the one rising to the occasion, but maybe Hall's reputation makes him think he is going up against one of the best. After all, Bryant is still maturing.
Prediction: Cowboys 31, Redskins 20
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4:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: 4! + 4 (consult your PSAT study guide)
Everybody's talking about that historic 28 point spread. No one is talking about the money line. The money line for the Broncos to win is $6,400. That means that if you want to win $100 by betting on the Broncos, you must make a $6,400 wager. A $64 bet earns you only a buck, though you could try to parlay that with a million-dollar scratch-off. If you expect Peyton Manning (and Brock Osweiler starting midway through the third quarter) to earn you $1,000 on the money line this weekend, you will have to wager the equivalent of a 2013 BMW 550i.
Conversely, Vegas will take sucker money to the tune of a +3600 money line for the Jaguars. Wager an all-new Benjamin on the Jaguars, and if Peyton and six other Broncos get hurt in the first quarter, you could spend five days in Maui. Or, you could use the $100 to buy groceries, or invest the money with the market currently dipping.
Few people bet NFL money lines, but the money line really adds information to the point spread in this case. One reason this spread is historic is that scoring has increased in recent years: the 1976 Steelers may have been just as likely to beat the expansion Buccaneers as the Broncos are to beat the Jaguars, but teams didn't routinely score 38 points back then. The money line, unlike the spread, is not affected by mop-up quarterbacks, clock killing and all the other things bettors will hope for in a 40-13 cover. When it comes to out-and-out WINNING, the wiseguys would rather take action on the sunrise than the Broncos. Which should inform your gambling decisions.
Prediction: Broncos 38, Jaguars 10
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1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Chiefs by 10
The Chiefs have the best pass defense in the AFC and probably the best pass defense in the NFL south of the Cascade Mountains. Football Outsiders ranks them first in the NFL in both pass defense and overall defense right now, though the Seahawks still nip them in many indicators. Opponents complete just 52.9% of their passes against the Chiefs and thrown just four touchdowns while suffering seven interceptions and 15 sacks.
The Chiefs have faced Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Michael Vick this season, and while some of those quarterbacks are down on their luck, one look at the Cowboys-Broncos highlight reel (which is six hours long, making it the only highlight reel longer than the actual event since Mike Tyson vs. Marvis Frazier) proves that the Chiefs have not feasted exclusively on easy offenses. There is nothing surprising about the quality of the Chiefs pass defense: Brandon Flowers, Shaun Smith, Eric Berry, Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and the rest are all proven, quality defenders.
Nothing about the Raiders offense is proven, and its relatively high quality was a surprise to anyone who stayed up for their Million Dollar Movie performance on Monday morning (or watched it on tape like a sane East Coast person). Terrelle Pryor plays like a 24-year old former college superstar who was given two full seasons to mature on the bench; the only surprise there was that the Raiders gave a former college superstar two full seasons to mature on the bench. Denarius Moore is reclaiming some of his big-play luster from 2011, and Greg Olson's system accommodates both Pryor's speed and the lack of other passing weapons without becoming an option factory. The Raiders attack with a variety of formations and concepts, Pryor makes plays from the pocket as well as on the run and the offensive line is working its way up from a D to a C-minus. The non-embarrassing Raiders are as big a surprise as the suddenly-excellent Chiefs.
That does not mean the Raiders are upset ready: Hali and company will eat up their offensive line, and the secondary will clamp down on everyone, including the one-dimensional Moore. But it does mean that they can make one of pro football's greatest rivalries into a game worth watching. And frankly, it's been a while.
Prediction: Chiefs 27, Raiders 19
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1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Packers by 2 ½
Real Ravens football is back. That team you saw from mid-January through early February, the one with the smooth offense, was an aberration. The Ravens are back to extreme home-road splits (they are already 2-0 in Baltimore and 1-2 elsewhere) and cringy victories. Last week's win over the Dolphins marked the rebirth of the ugly: 3.3 yards per carry, a total of three successful deep passes, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and kicker Justin Tucker doing most of the heavy lifting, and a fourth quarter offensive series so brutal it would have embarrassed Tony Banks:
First-and-10: Bernard Pierce loses one yard, but lineman A.Q. Shipley grabbed the facemask of Randy Starks, a defender he was not even blocking.
First-and-20: Dion Jordan steps in front of a screen pass to Ray Rice but drops the ball.
Second-and-20: Chris Clemons disrupts another screen with a blitz that nearly causes a safety. Joe Flacco dumps the ball to Rice, who is flattened for a loss of two.
Third-and-22: Flacco drops into the end zone. Jordan beats Bryant McKinnie and gets a piece of Flacco's arm. Rashard Jones intercepts the flutterball and returns it for a touchdown.
Old-school Ravens football was usually successful, and the Suggs-Dumervil pincers pass rush give them enough of a surrogate for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to keep the dream of punishingly-sloppy football alive. Look for seven more Ravens wins this season. Six of them in Baltimore.
Prediction: Ravens 20, Packers 17
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1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
As the Earl of Richmond amasses his forces at Bosworth Field, as Batman defeats Harley Quinn and infiltrates the old amusement park outside Gotham, and as Fredo Schiano baits his fish hook, Greg Schiano prepares to battle a team that harbors a bitter grudge against him and all he stands for: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Eagles will also be there, probably without Michael Vick (hamstring). Nick Foles did an adequate job running Chip Kelly's offense on Sunday, with assists from a battered Giants secondary and plenty of Giants turnovers. But the option is barely an option with Foles waddling away on bootlegs. Defenders can safely collapse on Shady McCoy and the others; it does not quite stop McCoy, but it slows him down, and it makes the Eagles much easier to handle.
Mike Glennon was impressive early in his starting debut two weeks ago. He only looked like a rookie when Schiano and his staff put him in position to fail in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, the NFL will not allow Schiano to list "position to fail" on the official depth chart, due to space restrictions.
Prediction: Eagles 23, Buccaneers 20
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1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Lions by 2 ½
Happy 30th birthday Brandon Weeden! Your birthday is actually on Monday, but Game Riffs wanted to deliver your present early: a starting job by default!
Also, here is some guidance in navigating that tricky transition from mid-tier prospect to midlife crisis. With Ray Horton's attacking defense, a pretty good offensive line, some new faces in the receiving corps and two first-round picks in the pipeline, the Browns are in great position to be next year's Chiefs. All they need is their Alex Smith. Who, by the way, is seven months younger than you. So you have 11 games to prove that you are that guy, keeping in mind that the quarterback who outplayed you and sparked all this optimism is on injured reserve, where he will evolve into a kind of RGIII-lite folk hero. Now blow out those candles!
Speaking of blowing, you did not think you would get off unscathed, did you Dominic Raiola? You made fun of band kids, making you the first 34 year old in history to run afoul of both the NFL's Code of Conduct and the Department of Education's anti-bullying policies. Tuba players are just mobile bass players, Dominic, and if you don't think bass players are cool we can arrange to have Lemmy Kilmister scream at you and see how you like it. Sure, the tuba is heavy, so the tuba player is often a hefty guy. You … you're an offensive linemen, right Dominic?
The following list of famous tuba players should put Raiola in his place: mess with the tuba player, and you are also messing with:
Tommy Johnson, who played the Jaws theme. Johnson passed away a few years ago, but there are still some sharks willing to do his bidding.
Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen. There was your "out," Dominic: you could have claimed you were telling the tuba player he played like Tuba Fats, not calling him fat. Then again, you said other obnoxious stuff, too.
Damon "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson. He's that guy in The Roots. Also, he plays the sousaphone. But "Sousaphone Gooding Jr." doesn't work, and this is an NFL column, not A Toddler's Guide to the Brass Section with Petunia Puddleboots.
Opus the Penguin. Shout at the band that they are squat, flightless, liberal, and smell like herring guts, and you will have to deal with THIS guy:
Okay, that is not a very intimidating list. The all-time Lions center list isn't exactly brimming with household names, either. At least the others did not bring the wrong attention on themselves.
Prediction: Lions 24, Browns 14
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1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Jets by 2 ½
If humans lose the ability to comprehend terms like "rebuilding team," "rookie lumps" and "flashes of brilliance," then we will soon lose the capacity for speech altogether. Soon, we will be like homo habilis, communicating through grunts and gestures, then we will move further down the animal kingdom. Eventually, we become honey bees, with one scout bee finding a compelling stamen of sports information and communicating the news to the hive via pheromones and a complex dance.
We already call hot stories buzzy, folks. Don't blame me when you spend your whole life collecting mandibular secretions from the abdomen of an enormous queen.
Anyway, Geno Smith looked horrible against the Titans but very good against a Falcons defense full of undrafted rookie linebackers and defensive backs who cannot tackle. And the Jets, who surprised everyone by starting last season 3-3, have proven competent enough to surprise a waning contender, while still incompetent enough to make the Titans look like a powerhouse. Instead of lurching around in shock and revising bipolar assessments every 15 minutes, maybe we should let Smith show flashes of brilliance and take rookie lumps for a rebuilding team, and hold the bold conclusions until the dust settles.
That ability to beat a waning contender is likely to come in very handy on Sunday. Give the Jets credit: at no point in the last three years was one of their coaches accused of trashing a house at the end of a lease. It's easy to sympathize with Todd Haley up to a point: those lease arrangements are a hassle, you know you aren't getting the security deposit back, and what 46-year old professional hasn't had the urge to vandalize the hell out of a suburban McMansion? But he went too far with what he left on the front step: a flaming paper bag full of 2009 Chiefs highlight tapes.
Prediction: Jets 22, Steelers 10
* * *
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Vikings by 1
When a team builds a monstrous three-headed quarterback situation for itself, it is sometimes fun to build a Frankenquarterback from the trio: put A's arm on B's body and insert C's mind, and you have Steve Young! That does not work for the Vikings, because Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Schiano refugee Josh Freeman all have similar skills. All three run well. They are all as accurate as movie blurbs. All are turnover prone, though Freeman prefers the interception while Ponder and Cassel prefer the fumble. All have one superlative season in their pasts: Freeman and Cassel have 2010, Ponder has his sophomore season at Florida State in 2009.
So stitch the trio together, and you get a really huge guy who runs amazingly well, has scattershot accuracy, is very mistake prone, had one amazing season in the NFL and one in college, and provokes an overwhelming amount of speculation and skepticism about his personality, work ethic, and overall worthiness.
In other words, Christian Ponder + Matt Cassel + Josh Freeman = Cam Newton.
The Adrian Peterson situation broke after we went to press. Sports on Earth extends support and best wishes to Peterson and his family.
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1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Bengals by 8 ½
If the NFL had a minor league system, Thad Lewis would be a Triple A quarterback: good enough to bounce from organization to organization and cover for some midseason injuries, not good enough to be part of any long-term plans. Because there is no Triple A ball, we have a limited scouting report on Lewis, who bounced from Duke to St. Louis to Cleveland to Detroit before the Bills caught them in their quarterback injury dragnet in August.
Lewis' lone start came last Week 17 for the Browns against the Steelers. It was a frigid, flurrying day, and he was playing for a team with few weapons and coaches who were checking their Linkedin accounts instead of the playbook. Lewis has a strong arm, moves pretty well, and looked comfortable delivering short passes, but he scattered a lot of throws and let Troy Polamalu bait him for an easy interception. In short: an emergency survival quarterback, not the kind of guy you want to debut against a defense that just shut down Tom Brady.
Lewis should at least be better than poor Jeff Tuel, who was great copy, but looked last Thursday as though he were trying to grip the football like a baseball.
Prediction: Bengals: 17, Bills 10
* * *
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Texans by 8 ½
The Jaguars are off Game Riffs suspension. The Texans are on, thanks to the fans that showed up at Matt Schaub's house late at night, berated him and took pictures of his family, one week after all of the jersey-burning nonsense. No one cares that it was "only one or two crazies;" zero crazies have stalked the homes of Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Eli Manning, or any other beleaguered quarterback, and Texans fans are establishing a pattern of this kind of behavior (see: the Fire Kubiak rally that turned ugly a few years ago). If Texans fans don't want to keep hearing about this, try hearing about how Santa Claus was booed during the LBJ administration every time an ex-coach or quarterback returns: this incident was inexcusable, and it was four days ago.
So I cannot risk egging on any lunatics with Matt Schaub jokes until Texans fans stop earning a reputation as the worst fans in America. Let's have an incident free week, and I promise I won't bring this up 46 years from now.
Prediction: Texans 27, Rams 16
* * *
4:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Seahawks by 14 ½
The Titans offensive highlight of the season was Sunday's broken play dump-off to Chris Johnson, who has been typically ineffective on conventional handoffs but is the last guy a defense wants to see charging full-steam through chaos. It makes you wonder: What would happen if a team built most of its offense around broken plays? The Titans have two mobile quarterbacks in Ryan Fitzpatrick and injured Jake Locker, so they could mix all kinds of option goodies with every screen-draw wrinkle they could devise for CJ2K. Kendall Wright could get into the fun with reverses, screens, and pitches. Fitzpatrick is smart and crafty (insert obligatory Harvard reminder here) so he could just scramble around in circles until something gets open downfield. The Titans defense is solid; Alterraun Verner and Jurrell Casey give them two excellent young defenders with first names inspired by exploded planets.
Great defense? Playground offensive tactics? With a little tinkering, the Titans could become the Seahawks! This idea keeps looking better and better.
Prediction: Seahawks 28, Titans 13
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4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: 49ers by 12 ½
Colin Kaepernick has thrown just six passes to wide receivers other than Anquan Boldin in the last two games. With the situation growing desperate, the 49ers contacted the Browns about the possibility of acquiring Josh Gordon, but the Browns turned them down. The conversation probably went something like this:
JIM HARBAUGH: Hey Lombo, how bad do you guys really want to tank it this year?
BROWNS GM MICHAEL LOMBARDI: Geez, coach, you should have called three weeks ago when we traded Trent Richardson. We're on a winning streak now, so it looks like there is no way we will get the first overall pick, and with next year's quarterback class looking so deep, I am not sure we even want it that badly.
BROWNS PRESIDENT JOE BANNER: Michael!!! Who are you talking to on that phone?
LOMBARDI: Nobody boss! Wrong Number! (Whispering) Jim, meet me in the parking garage outside the stadium with a first-round pick. Gordon will be in a duffel bag next to the elevator.
JIM HARBAUGH: Forget it. We have the Cardinals, Titans, Jaguars and a bye coming up. We can wait this crisis out.
Michael Crabtree (Achilles) has started running again, and Mario Manningham (knee) could be back in practice next week. Both should be back by the time Kaepernick really needs them. Until then, the Niners defense should be able to keep doing what they have done for two weeks.
Prediction: 49ers 23, Cardinals 16
* * *
8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
The Chargers looked very good early in their 10:15 p.m. season opener against the Texans, then faded after midnight. They were wobbly early in their 4:25 start against the Cowboys in Week 4, falling behind 21-10 in the second quarter, then roared to life late in that game. They were terrible through most of their 11:30 PM start against the Raiders, but they kept getting better and better throughout their 1:00 p.m. start in Philadelphia last month.
Using these data points, we can safely predict the optimum moment when the biorhythms of Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Jarret Johnson and other critical Chargers players are at apogee. It is 9:48 p.m. Eastern, 6:48 Pacific. If they want to be at their absolute best for a 1 p.m. kickoff, they will have to play in Guam. Look for the Chargers to play well in the first half on Monday, then go quietly into that dark night.
Prediction: Colts 24, Chargers 21