Peyton Manning's return to Indy causes misty, water-colored memories. Remember when winning the NFC East meant something? Remember when Ravens-Steelers was must-see TV? Remember the last time the Jets were 3-3 when they faced the Patriots? How about when Robert Griffin and the Shanahans saw eye-to-eye, you were excited to see Mike Wallace play and you could name all the Packers receivers? These are not scattered pictures of smiles left behind: these are NFL Game Riffs, and they are here to make you smile.
8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Broncos by 6 ½
Your ex-wife lost 30 pounds and started wearing her hair long again. She has a new boyfriend and -- if you are reading between the lines of those Facebook updates correctly -- a girlfriend, too. They post daiquiri-and-hot-tub pictures from the skydiving resort in Maui on random Tuesday mornings, looking like models for the cover of Sexy, Deeply Satisfied Jetsetters magazine.
How you react to your ex's happiness depends on two factors. The first is your current romantic situation. If you are eating microwave beef stew over the kitchen sink for dinner, or dating someone who crushes cigarettes out in Sambuca shot glasses, you may find yourself bitter and stalkery. If your love life is providing even a little fulfillment, it's easier to move on.
The second factor is your own maturity and perspective. It takes wisdom and balance to accept that the two of you were growing apart anyway, that you were not capable of providing the lifestyle she is enjoying and the breakup started because YOU were the one seeking a new direction. You could do without the in-your-face success rubbing -- really, do they have to work the word tantric into every status update? -- but after a sour grape or two, you accept that you are better off at the sidewalk café with your plucky new belle than competing in the international erotic Olympiad with the old flame.
Both factors have allowed the Colts, most of their fans and (yes) even Jim Irsay to rebound from the Peyton Manning breakup. They know their franchise was in no position to give Manning what he needed to once again be the world's sexiest quarterback. They have wished him well, then found contentment by setting up house with Andrew Luck.
Ah, but then comes the awkward meeting of the couples, at a mutual friend's wedding or class reunion. All of that glamor and success could shake the foundations of your peace and happiness in your new life. Mix in a cocktail or two, perhaps after a long night of Instagram and Katy Lied, and you may even say something you regret. A little pain and regret is only human. But it's important for your self-esteem and mental health to find a way to feel good about their success, if only to make it easier to feel good about your own. You should not try to beat your ex in a shootout, or a war of words. You must take pride in the relationship you are building, so you can lay the groundwork for a future meeting when, who knows, the tables may have turned.
After all, Colts fans, you are playing the ultimate trump card in relationship warfare. You are dating someone 13 years younger.
Prediction: Broncos 34, Colts 24
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4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Steelers by 1
The greatness of the Steelers-Ravens rivalry from 2008 through last season rested on a delicate equilibrium. The defenses were always better than the offenses, but the offenses were just good enough to keep the teams successful and the games entertaining. The vintage 23-20 Ravens-Steelers slugfest (that was the final score, with either team winning, four times in four years) mixed roughly eight sacks and five turnovers with a handful of bombs -- Joe Flacco to Torrey Smith, Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown -- and a grinding effort by Ray Rice and/or Rashard Mendenhall. It was old-fashioned football, but not so old-fashioned that it looked like 1880s rugby.
But several individuals have disrupted that delicate equilibrium. Their names are Eugene Monroe, Kelvin Beachum, Fernando Velasco and Gino Gradkowski. They are offensive linemen, and they are not good. The Ravens are trying to compensate for their ramshackle offensive line by exploring their roots: the I-formation bomb is back, but it is not better than ever, because opponents know their blitzes can reach Flacco before Flacco can reach his receivers.
The Steelers, by contrast, have adopted basketball's Princeton Weave as their offensive philosophy. Execute enough screen passes and double-reverse-receiver options, and eventually someone will get behind the defense for a layup … er, touchdown. It worked exactly once against the Jets, a team that can often be beaten by one touchdown.
The Ravens and Steelers entered the season with defensive issues too. But because they are the Ravens and Steelers, they are sorting their defenses out quickly. The Steelers have no chance of blocking the Ravens. The Ravens have little chance of blocking the Steelers. Like the teams participating in it, this rivalry is about to fall on rough times. Since it was pretty rough in its heyday, things may get downright brutal on Sunday.
Prediction: Ravens 16, Steelers 12
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1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Patriots by 3 ½
The Jets were 3-3 when they faced the Patriots last year, just like this year. The Patriots were also 3-3 and looked vulnerable. (Unlike this season, it was not the team's second meeting.) Mark Sanchez entered the game coming off a mix of good performance (three touchdowns against the Bills, two in a handoff-heavy effort against the Colts) and awful (13-of-29 against the 49ers); the butt fumble was weeks away, and the belief that he could still be a viable starter was not a sign of insanity. Sanchez threw for 328 yards against the Patriots and led a couple of fourth-quarter drives to force overtime. He then fumbled on the final play of the game, after the Patriots kicked an overtime field goal for a 29-26 victory.
Which is a long way of saying that what happens next is more important than what has happened so far. The Jets could as easily steer into a culvert as stay on the path of righteousness and adequacy. All signs point to them following the road less traveled. Signing Josh Cribbs to replace injured Clyde Gates is not a major move, but it is a good one because Cribbs is a steadying locker room presence. All of their little waiver moves -- signing Zach Sudfeld from the Patriots two weeks ago, grabbing Greg Salas from the Eagles this week -- show the Jets doing due diligence to scout opponents and rebuild the roster. This kind of talent sifting should not be taken for granted: the Browns are accidently signing players with torn ACLs right now, and this time last year the Jets were worrying about who was taking locker room pictures and whether the backup quarterback could protect the punter.
On the downside, Cribbs reported that Rex Ryan told players "don't do nothing for your wife," 1950s boxing-coach style. Way to take away the only fulfilling thing Jets players get to do in a typical week. Ryan was referring to household chores. So am I.
GRONK INJURY UPDATE: Rob Gronkowski is playing and not playing, healthy enough to play and too injured to play, and getting pressured into playing and being given adequate time to recover, in each of the universes directly parallel to our own. In one of them, he is actually a harp seal. In this one, he is stuck rehabilitating an unpredictable injury while working for a franchise both unwilling and incapable of providing straight answers, so asking about his health status is really questioning the very nature of knowledge.
Prediction: Patriots 22, Jets 13
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1:00 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Eagles by 2 ½
First place in the NFC East is at stake. Why doesn't it feel that way? Perhaps it's because these longtime rivals are so obviously flawed. The Eagles pass defense is just good enough to barely beat a rookie quarterback on a team that is looking for an excuse to surrender. The Cowboys pass defense is only slightly better, and will be without DeMarcus Ware (quad), part of the team's core of indispensable players. And of course, the NFC East is kind of like a poor person's American Athletic Conference, which is why Teddy Bridgewater will feel right at home playing for the Giants next year.
Monte Kiffin's defense has yielded lackluster results this year, but Sunday's effort against the Redskins was encouraging. Kiffin was hired, in part, because his Cover-2 philosophy is a theoretical counter-punch for the read option. Stopping the hobbled Redskins is no great feat this year, and the Cowboys may catch another break if Nick Foles starts again in place of Michael Vick (hamstring). Foles can be moderately effective with a big assist from LeSean McCoy and Chip Kelly's run-first principles, but he does not create the challenges that Kiffin was hired to overcome.
Between Foles and gimpy, frustrated Robert Griffin III, the NFC East is no longer read-option central. But it is becoming a hospitable place for pocket passers who excel at shotgun and play-action passes and can run well enough to be a threat. Which is, again, why Teddy Bridgewater will feel right at home for the Giants next year.
Prediction: Cowboys 31, Eagles 24
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1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Dolphins by 7 ½
As a public service to Dolphins fans waiting for Mike Wallace like Linus waiting for The Great Pumpkin, here are the Seven Stages of Free Agent Receiver Buyer's Remorse:
Stage 1: Defensiveness. "It's still early in the season."
Stage 2: Rationalization. "He is forcing safeties to play deep, which is totally opening things up for Charles Clay. That's what you really want from your highly-paid deep-threat receiver, after all: opportunities for your tight end."
Stage 3: Deflection. "Ryan Tannehill's ball location on some of those dropped passes was not quite perfect. How can a $60-million receiver be expected to catch anything besides perfectly thrown passes?"
Stage 4: Globalization. "Bottom line, we are 3-2. That's what the Wallace signing, and all the other offseason moves, were really about: hovering just above .500 and finishing in second place."
Stage 5: Bye Week Hopefulness. "Wallace accepted the blame for his poor start. 'That's my fault,' Wallace told the Palm Beach Post. 'Everything. Whatever happens is my fault.' So all of the whispers about his unhappiness with his role and lack of chemistry with Tannehill are settled! It is time to turn the corner! And even if they don't quite connect this week: they are facing a quarterback named Thad Lewis, who has a foot injury."
Stage 6: Appeal to a Higher Power. "Jeff Ireland prepared for just this eventuality. He has a plan! How can you possibly suggest that Jeff Ireland does not have a plan?"
Stage 7: Acceptance. "Yup, we paid way too much for this guy, when we should have been solidifying the offensive line."
The Dolphins are obviously at Stage 5 right now. That puts them in better shape than the Bills, who are one awkward plant by Lewis from DEFCON Flynn.
Prediction: Dolphins 24, Bills 16
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1:00 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Robert Griffin III is frustrated with the coaching staff? Who could have predicted it? More accurately, who predicted it for October 13th of Griffin's second season, because you win the pool. "I'm just really focusing on being the playmaker that I know I can be and not letting anybody else tell me how to play this game," Griffin said after Sunday night's loss. "You know, I got here for a reason, and I've got to make sure I use all of my abilities to their maximum. And running the ball is one of those, when I do get the opportunity. It's not that I'm looking for it, but if it is there, I will take it."
Griffin was speaking generally, not about a coaching staff that cannot decide whether they want him to run on an injured leg on a rutty field against a vicious defense or not run at all. And if you believe that, Rex Ryan was telling his team not to do "household chores" with their wives.
Fans will probably start taking sides as this pot slowly boils in the weeks to come; heaven knows there are probably some Shanahan supporters out there whose last name is not "Shanahan." The only side that matters is the side Dan Snyder takes. It is not easy to figure out which side that is: only one of these people is really replaceable, and it is not the one that sells jerseys.
The Griffin situation aside, if the rest of the Redskins keep playing like this, it will result in some interesting decisions at the start of next year's draft. For the Rams.
Prediction: Bears 27, Redskins 21
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1:00 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Falcons by 7
Type One October Football Pessimism: the realization that your best offensive weapon is seriously injured, your offensive line and linebacker corps are depleted, erosion has critically weakened your special teams, your coaches have run out of ideas, and a championship window of opportunity suddenly slammed shut, forcing you to start asking hard questions about rebuilding.
Type Two October Football Pessimism: the creeping dread that your franchise will be shut down by the combined forces of the Department of Labor, the Center for Disease Control, and possibly the National Alliance of Mental Illness, and that you will soon see your coach hand-trucked into the back of a van wearing Hannibal Lecter restraints.
In other words, Falcons fans, it could be worse.
Prediction: Falcons 19, Buccaneers 14
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1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Lions by 1
All big cats look alike these days. Great defensive line? Both teams have one. Inconsistent-but-talented quarterback? Check. One great wide receiver and a bunch of guys you barely heard of? Check. The ability to beat the 1992 Cowboys one week and lose to a culinary academy the next? Check.
Two-tight end attack? Check! The Lions now supplement Brandon Pettigrew with Joseph Fauria, a 6-foot-7 red zone target who went undrafted because, well, scouts can miss the forest for the trees sometimes. "He's a seven-foot behemoth of a man out there," said Kris Durham, one of those Lions receivers you barely heard of and has some measurement issues. Matthew Stafford can use all of the tall, non-crazy, non-injured, non-Calvin Johnson receivers he can get.
The way he has been overthrowing receivers in the middle of the field Andy Dalton could also use a seven-footer, but Tyler Eifert is just 6-foot-6. Eifert also probably lacks Fauria's array of end zone dances, though we cannot be sure because Eifert has not yet scored. Fauria has unveiled five of them, one of which is called The Wop, and …
Fauria openly admits that he practices his end zone dances, both with teammates and family members. As of now, this is perceived as "cute," because the Lions are winning, and because Bob Costas has not gotten wind of it yet.
Prediction: Bengals 26, Lions 24
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4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Chiefs by 6 ½
Sorry, Chiefs fans and Case Keenum admirers, but the Texans are on Game Riffs probation until their fans go one week without an incident. Yes, booing your injured quarterback is an incident, and yes, Sunday is part of the week. But it was only a handful of idiots. That's who it always is, every time, in every city. The handfuls have to stop being so much of a hand full.
Prediction: Chiefs 26, Texans 10
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4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Packers by 10
It's nametag season in Green Bay:
Jarrett Boykin was Virginia Tech's all-time leading receiver, but he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds at the 2012 combine, making him moderately fast for a defensive end. Boykin impressed the Packers in training camp last year and this year, playing his way up to fourth receiver. With Randall Cobb on IR and James Jones battling a foot injury, Boykin is the likely starter.
Jake Stoneburner was a king-sized wide receiver at Ohio State; his production was nothing special, but a name like "Stoneburner" sticks in your mind. He earned the wrong kind of attention in the 2012 offseason when he fled from police while urinating behind a restaurant. The official report says that he stopped after running 40 yards; it's always wise for a prospect to keep his mind on the combine, even when the zipper is still down. Stoneburner caught three passes for 12 yards and one touchdown in the preseason. Those are not great numbers, but Stoneburner fits the size-speed profile of a Mike McCarthy tight end. He is now the fifth tight end on an active roster that includes just four wide receivers.
Andy Mulumba hails from Montreal. He played well enough at linebacker for Eastern Michigan to become the second player taken overall in this year's CFL draft by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. "We are ecstatic to get a player of Andy's caliber with the second overall selection today," Winnipeg GM Joe Mack said in May. "An extremely talented and gifted athlete, this pick will help us solidify our defensive line and we're looking forward to donning our uniform and becoming a Blue Bomber." Then the Packers called, and so much for all of that. Mulumba will play due to injuries to Clay Matthews (finger) and Nick Perry (foot).
Remy D'Artagnan was born in the Marianas Islands but moved with his family to Glen Burnie, Maryland, when he was a toddler. He was a two-time academic second-team America East Conference placekicker and holder for University of Maryland-Baltimore County, switching to running back before the 2012 East-West Shrine Game. He impressed scouts at the combine by running a 2.135-second five-cone drill (despite a 5.6-second forty) while conducting interviews in his native Chamorro language. D'Artagnan was cut at the end of 2012 training camp and was working on his grandfather's tapioca farm when Ted Thompson called him. He is currently behind Eddie Lacy, Jonathan Franklin and injured James Starks on the depth chart.
Okay, I made that last person up. The Packers are one or two injuries away from making it really hard to tell.
Prediction: Packers 23, Browns 20
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1:00 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Panthers by 6
Ron Rivera is suddenly a go-for-it-on-fourth-down machine! He went for it twice in the first quarter against the Vikings last week, scoring a touchdown that helped the Panthers tilt an eventual rout in their favor. The same thing happened against the Giants: Mike Tolbert scored a fourth-and-goal touchdown early, and it allowed the Panthers take firm control of the game. In between, a second-quarter Cam Newton pass fell incomplete on fourth-and-one in the red zone, and the Cardinals pulled away from the Panthers. Two out of three ain't bad, and it's much better than what the Panthers were doing before. Rivera's conversion has been remarkable, kind of like when Bob Dylan discovered gospel music, except that the results are good.
Something about Texas makes the Rams crazy. Average out the team that lost to the Cowboys in September with the one that beat the Texans on Sunday, and you have a pretty solid team, plus perhaps two watchable games. There may be some rock-paper-scissors effect at work: Cowboys humiliate Rams in Dallas, Rams humiliate Texans in Houston … Texans humiliate Cowboys in St. Louis? They don't play one another at all, so we will never know, and the world is not ready for a 2013 Texans-Cowboys game in any venue.
Despite the impressive final score, the Rams spent a lot of last Sunday watching the Texans set their own kitchen on fire, just like the Cowboys did to the Rams in September. There are better strategies for long-term success. Like finally figuring out that you don't have to send out the special teams on every fourth down.
Prediction: Panthers 24, Rams 17
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1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Chargers by 7 ½
The Chargers travel coordinator may be the hardest working person in the NFL. He or she (the position is not listed in the team media guide, because the Chargers don't want other teams stealing their most valued employee) must cope with the maniacal travel schedules conceived by the NFL, not as punishment for an endless stadium funding boondoggle (heaven forbid), but simply because San Diego is so physically and emotionally distant from league headquarters. A Monday night game on the West Coast, followed by a 1 p.m. Sunday start 2,338 miles away? It is no problem for the travel coordinator, who will pack extra instant coffee for players who will feel like this game starts at dawn, six hours after the Colts game ended.
It does not take a veteran handicapper to smell upset here. The Jaguars showed signs of life against the Broncos. The Chargers are a road dog coming off a Monday night win and a long flight, and are also not that good. But when researching the Worst Quarterback Disasters ever, I came across the 1992 Patriots, who were a lot like the 2013 Jaguars. The 1992 Patriots had just undergone an ownership change, were dealing with a pair of awful quarterback prospects and a roster which had been gutted by the previous regime's ineptitude, and were rumored to be moving to Baltimore or Bangladesh. That team lost its first three games 65-13. Sound similar? They then started to get competitive, like the Jaguars last week. But they did not win a game until Nov. 15.
In other words, there is an intermediate stage between 37-3 losses and upset victories: a series of 35-19 losses. The Jaguars have only just entered that stage.
Prediction: Chargers 28, Jaguars 16
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4:05 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: 49ers by 4
The 49ers' 18-play, nine minute and 32 second, 89-yard march against the Cardinals in the fourth quarter last Sunday shall henceforth be dubbed the Slow Ride. Coping with an opponent that trailed by just two points and refused to go away, the 49ers threw down their cell phones and tablets, picked up wooden clubs, and commenced bludgeoning. Their Cro-Magnon migration into new hunting grounds began with a few short passes but ended with eight straight runs. Bruce Miller ran two fullback gives on the drive because CAVEMAN LIKE MASTODON STEAK. By the time Kendall Hunter punched in a touchdown, the Cardinals were both down by nine points and fully tenderized, not to mention short on time.
The 49ers learned on Sunday how to deal with a pesky opponent that is just good enough to make a few big plays, clamp down on defense and linger until the fourth quarter: just cue the Foghat album on vinyl, rev up the running backs, and Slow Ride for a quarter or an archeological era, whichever comes first.
The 49ers may need four of those drives this week.
Prediction: 49ers 26, Titans 10
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8:40 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Giants by 3
Remember the Seven Stages of Free Agent Wide Receiver Buyer's Remorse from the Dolphins comment? The Vikings and their fans are stuck on Stage Zero with Greg Jennings.
Stage Zero: Confusion. We acquired a free agent receiver? We vaguely recall someone running his mouth a lot in the preseason, but we may have been watching a Chad Johnson reality show. And yes, somebody caught two touchdown passes in London, but that might have been Bernard Berrian.
Jennings' quiet start is a symptom of a bigger problem in Minnesota: the Vikings are slow. Adrian Peterson is fast, of course, but the rest of the team looked like it was running through a hip-deep pond against the Panthers. Josh Freeman is not going to make the team any faster, because a) it is hard to play fast when you just cracked the playbook two weeks ago, b) Christian Ponder is the fastest quarterback on the roster, and c) when trying to increase team speed, quarterback is not the position to start at.
The Vikings tried to sign Mike Wallace in the offseason. He would have made the team faster, but … let's change the subject.
The Giants will not bench Eli Manning this week. Seriously, that is where we are at: the possible benching of Eli Manning. For Curtis Painter. Anyone suggesting that clearly did not watch the 2011 Colts. Which leaves a huge percentage of the population, but still. Painter is the quarterback you start when you realize it is time to part ways with a Manning and start over completely.
Which is why Teddy Bridgewater will feel right at home with the Giants next year. Did we mention that already?
Prediction: Giants 27, Vikings 20