An injury plague has struck the NFL, and those left behind are struggling for survival. The Giants need to be put out of their misery, but the Eagles don't have the firepower. The desperate Dolphins have turned to a mutated creature named Big Mac for help, while the Saints hope they don't need Jimmy Graham to overcome the nearly-headless, still-shambling Bills. The Packers are survivalists, but even they might not have prepared for the current emergency. Some teams were even seen fleeing North America, but the 49ers are willing to torpedo the Jaguars to stay afloat. Could Brett Favre return to save us? If Game Riffs is seriously asking that question, then the zombie apocalypse may truly be upon us.
8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Packers by 9
A sign of modern times: when a player suffers a terrifying injury and is rushed from the field to the hospital, we no longer wait breathlessly for the official report. Instead, we wait for the Tweet from the player's personal account. We hope it arrives quickly, and we hope it is written in borderline-incomprehensible social networking gibberish, because that is a sure sign that it was pecked out by an enthusiastic 20-something , not a team spokesperson. So "Feelin Gr8, shoutin thanks 4 all the LUV, PTL and Packerz Rool" is good news. "I am well and wish to express thanks to my numerous fans" is a sign that the player is either gravely ill or has been infected by alien spores.
So Jermichael Finley gave the football world a sigh of relief with his Monday Tweets. "I was able 2 walk to & from the shower today, which was badly needed after yesterday's victory! Thank u again 4 the support, and Go Packers!" Finley still has some recovery ahead of him, but he is healthy enough to joke about his personal stench in Tweet-speak. PTL.
The Packers, like just about every NFL team, are coping with several significant injuries at once. Unlike many other NFL teams, however, the Packers do this every year. The massively multiplayer midweek injury report and waiver scramble is Ted Thompson's favorite dungeon. He is a Level 20 Arch-mage at finding obscure players who are ready to fill short-term roles.
Last week's Game Riffs ran down the list of small-school and Canadian players Thompson used to fill out the Packers depth chart. In a typical year, there is a tipping point at which Jake Stoneburner and Andy Mulumba-types can no longer keep a team playoff-competitive. But this is not a typical year. If all 32 general managers were forced to build rosters exclusively from players that are NOT currently on NFL rosters, Thompson's Packers would be prohibitive favorites to win the Super Bowl. (They would beat John Schneider's Seahawks in the conference championship game, then face the Ravens after Ozzie Newsome hijacked the Alabama team bus.) The way players are getting hurt, it's rapidly coming to that.
As for the Vikings, many of us were guilty of wishing too hard for Josh Freeman to be proven right so Greg Schiano could be proven wrong. Schiano's awfulness is not a zero-sum game, and Freeman has his own problems and culpability in the Buccaneers situation. It may be too early to evaluate Freeman after one terrible Monday start, but we are right on schedule for evaluating his previous six, and about 16 of the 20 which came before it.
Midweek concussion symptoms sideline Freeman and return Christian Ponder to the lineup on Sunday night. That it won't make any difference speaks to the deeper problems faced by the Vikings and all three of their quarterbacks.
Prediction: Packers 26, Vikings 17
* * *
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Broncos by 13
Some observers noticed that Peyton Manning's deep passes wobbled and sailed during Sunday night's loss to the Colts. Game Riffs would like to welcome those observers to the 2010s!
Manning's deep passes have been sailing, tailing and wounded-quailing for a while now. Entering Sunday night, he had attempted just three passes all season that traveled more than 35 yards in the air: two completions against the Eagles and Cowboys (one which needed a two-step windup, the other Eric Decker slowed down to catch) and one overthrow. Many of his 25-35 yard deep passes have had too much air under them: Morris Claiborne's interception in the Cowboys game, for instance.
Last year, Manning was 5-of-15 on passes thrown 35 yards or more downfield. Many of the incomplete passes were overthrows, which for a veteran like Manning are not the sign of superior arm strength, but a sign of overcompensation. Think of an old baseball pitcher who still reaches the mid-90's on the radar gun but is suddenly wild: he has to try harder to throw harder, so some control is sacrificed.
Granted, Manning's wobblers were a bit more wobbly against the Colts. But we may have noticed them simply because Manning was forced to throw them. Manning attempted just 17 passes longer than 25 yards in air length entering Sunday -- not bombs anymore, but just shots down the field -- and completed only seven of them. Manning can get away with less than three moderately-long shots per game because he is Manning, can pick most defenses apart short, and spends most second halves milking a lead. Weather balloon bombs will be available for the rest of Manning's career, but opponents must find ways to force him to throw them.
The Redskins, who barely managed to hold the Josh McCown-helmed Bears below 40 points, are not one of those opponents. Both safeties are out on Sunday, Reed Doughty due to suffering a concussion and Brandon Meriweather due to maliciously causing them. Even if Doughty finds a Shanahan miracle cure or the backups step up, the Redskins secondary is awful and their special teams are worse. No one has accused Trindon Holiday of wobbly kick returns this season, and he is one of many Broncos who can supply the big plays so Manning can rely on lots and lots of little ones.
Prediction: Broncos 38, Redskins 28
* * *
1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Patriots by 7
Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland acquired two offensive tackles from the Ravens this week. One is Bryant McKinnie, mild-mannered former starter. The other is Big Mac, McKinnie's alter ego. Think of Big Mac as the Incredible Hulk, except that he is not activated by anger, but by wet tee-shirt contests and all-you-can-eat buffets.
McKinnie won back the starting job that Big Mac lost for him in last year's playoffs, helping the Ravens win the Super Bowl. But then came an off season of BIG MAC SMASH PUNY STRIPPERS. Ireland pursued McKinnie in March free agency while Big Mac overturned taco trucks and ballooned past 350 pounds. In a moment of near-clarity, Ireland veered off and signed Tyson Clabo, who provided an equal number of sacks but fewer headaches.
McKinnie claims that his alter ego is under wraps right now. "See, that's Big Mac in the offseason," he told the Miami Herald. "Bryant McKinnie is the person who comes to work and handles his business. That is what you'll get right now."
The problem with that quote, besides the fact that McKinnie refers to himselves in the third person as two different people, and besides the fact that he more-or-less admits that he plans to go on a cheesecake-and-cheesecake bender once the season is over … sigh, let's start over. The third biggest problem with McKinnie's remarks is that split personalities start to merge when a player enters his mid-30s. McKinnie can no longer handle his business because Big Mac has swallowed his potential.
McKinnie gave up a near safety when the Dolphins faced the Ravens three weeks ago, though in fairness he played about as well as either Dolphins tackle. You can picture Ireland leaping from his executive chair as Reshad Jones returned a Pick-6 thrown by a harried Joe Flacco from his own end zone and yelling "get me McKinnie NOW, WHATEVER IT TAKES!" Or perhaps, Ireland really believes he is getting a veteran "with a ring" who turned the Ravens around. Either way, all it took was a late-round pick, because the Ravens had just acquired Eugene Monroe from the Jaguars for two late-round picks. The Ravens would rather trade two picks for one bad tackle than one pick for two terrible tackles in one body. Ireland could have saved energy by just acquiring Monroe, but then Big Mac would never get the chance to be unleashed in South Beach, and what fun would that be?
Meanwhile, Patriots fans may be interested in the following smoking gun evidence that the NFL purposely targeted the Patriots with a penalty other teams have gotten away with all year. Here is a GIF and a quote of Jets special teams coach Robert Mal REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED DENY EVERYTHING NOTHING TO SEE HERE THE MOON LANDING WAS A HOAX REDACTED REDACTER THE EARTH IS FLAT FLOURIDATED WATER CAUSES THOUGHT CONTROL DRINK ONLY BOILED RAINWATER REDACTED REDACTED why the Patriots will win.
Prediction: Patriots 23, Dolphins 20
* * *
1:00 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Lions by 3
Success is often a matter of opportunities.
When a small basketball program goes 13-1 in the Solemn Prairie Conference and earns a chance to play Duke in the NCAA tournament, it's an opportunity. An opportunity to get pummeled, probably, but an opportunity. The Cowboys have a similar opportunity this year. They are 3-0 against the befuddled orphans of the I-95 corridor, but their only out-of-division victory came against the Rams in the NFL equivalent of the Great Alaska Shootout. To make the playoffs -- and perhaps even ride their mushy division schedule to a playoff home game -- they must prove they can beat medium-quality opponents. If we pencil in wins over the Vikings and Giants and a loss in New Orleans, the Cowboys can be 7-4 when you are carving your Thanksgiving turkey, assuming they win this game,
The Lions have an opportunity of their own. While they have their share of injuries, particularly at offensive tackle, they are in the pink compared to the crippled Bears and Packers (and emotionally healthier than the woebegone Vikings). If we pencil in a 3-0 record against the Cutler-less Bears, rudderless Steelers, and a Buccaneers team that may well be coached by Phil Galiano in three weeks, the Lions can be 8-3 when you are cooking your Thanksgiving turkey, assuming they win this game.
Of course, neither the Cowboys nor Lions have been the best opportunists in recent years. The Lions did everything right except punt in Sunday's tough loss to the Bengals. Sam Martin shanked a 28-yarder to set up the Bengals' game-winning field goal, and while he got plenty of support in the locker room (most Lions are directly responsible for at least two losses, so Martin is actually ahead of the game), he heard about it on the Internet. "I just click the person, block them and read the good ones," he said of Twitter trolls.
You might have a problem if you follow a punter on Twitter (besides Chris Kluwe, who no longer counts). You definitely have a problem if he is forced to block you.
Prediction: Cowboys 28, Lions 27
* * *
4:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Bengals by 6 ½
Geno Smith was asked by a reporter this week whether he stares down receivers when he throws interceptions. "No, I don't think so," Smith said, somewhat testily. "My coaches haven't said anything about that. I don't understand what specific instances you're talking about."
Let's pause for a moment and talk a little about "staring down receivers." All rookie quarterbacks, even Robert Griffin last year and Dan Marino in 1983, occasionally stare down their receivers. No one has ever left college with 100% perfect eye discipline. Veterans often do it too, and if you watch a lowlight reel of a quarterback's interceptions, you may be convinced he has a real problem with "staring down receivers." Even smart, experienced, successful people have lapses. Unfortunately, "staring down the receiver" is ancient barstool wisdom, a snippy condemnation of a quarterback's decision making and, by extension, his intelligence. No wonder quarterbacks get testy when it is brought up, especially after a big win.
On Smith's Pick-6 against the Patriots last Sunday, he did lock on to David Nelson and throw too late, though Nelson does not appear to have been Smith's primary receiver (Smith looks left before the snap, then turns to Nelson's side). But on earlier plays, Smith a) looked left before switching to the right to find Jeff Cumberland for a 25-yard gain, b) opened Jeremy Kerley up on an out-route on third-and-six by focusing on Stephen Hill over the middle (an example of great eye discipline) and c) kept the safety away from Kerley on a touchdown pass by again starting his read progression with Hill in the middle of the field.
There is probably more evidence that Smith does not regularly lock onto his targets, but the fact that the Jets converted 11 of 21 third downs against a Bill Belichick defense is all the evidence we really need.
Conclusions: Smith does not stare receivers down more than any other rookie, he may be a little better at avoiding that mistake than most rookies, and some people are not happy unless they have something to complain about.
Prediction: Bengals 24, Jets 21
* * *
1:00 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Eagles by 5 ½
When the Giants hosted the Eagles three weeks ago, both teams were pretty bad and clearly going nowhere. Yet they still managed to produce a watchable game, a 36-21 Eagles win full of sloppy amusement. Last week, the Eagles and Giants kept the sloppy but stripped the amusing and watchable from their repertoires.
The Giants beat the Vikings as unimpressively as possible; the enduring image from the evening was the Jared Allen/William-Beatty/Eli Manning group grope sack, which looked like a cross between squicky sexual experimentation and a cartoon character getting his beltloop caught on an anvil. Peyton Hillis was cast as the Monday night hero for his 36 rushing yards, which is a sign of just how far Giants football has fallen.
At least the Giants won, and produced an enduring image. The Eagles 17-3 loss to the Cowboys evaporated into hazy memories of a toddler in a Matt Barkley uniform shooting football-shaped balloons at defenders out of a toy cannon. A mental defense mechanism kicked in: the game was so bad that it sent your love of football into shock.
Neither Barkley nor Hillis should be needed this week, as Michael Vick and Brandon Jacobs are expected to fumigate some of the "first preseason game" smell lingering on both depth charts. So yes, we are actually eager to see reliable old friends like Vick and Jacobs return, which is another sign of just how far Giants-Eagles football has fallen.
Prediction: Eagles 36, Giants 21
* * *
1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Chiefs by 7 ½
The underhand, off-balance lob pass to Chris Ogbonnaya: a play so nice that Brandon Weeden tried it twice. Weeden's second attempt to play horseshoes on a football field fell incomplete (the first was intercepted in the Lions game), but it left Rob Chudzinski with some difficult choices. Do the Browns insert Jason Campbell to face the best pass defense in the conference, or do they keep Weeden in the lineup to absorb punishment and obliterate any lingering optimism about his long-term potential? In other words, should they be extra terrible this week or take steps to minimize future terribleness?
Chud took his time before deciding on Campbell. The Browns were probably waiting for a phone call from the Rams, who were on the phone with Brett Favre, who was on the phone with the Bears, who were trying to call Jeff Garcia, who was trying to call the Browns, who have him blocked on Caller ID. For the second straight week, the Chiefs face an opponent's third quarterback of the season. It is better to be lucky than good, but it is best to get a healthy dose of both.
Prediction: Chiefs 20, Browns 12
* * *
1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Saints by 11
As Larry Holder wrote in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the next three games on the Saints schedule are much harder than they looked when the schedule was released. The Jets, a professional football team that dabbled as a Vaudeville review in 2011-12, host the Saints in two weeks. The perplexing, unpredictable Cowboys travel to the Superdome after that. This week's visit from the Bills and their novice basketball-school quarterback should be a cinch, except that Jimmy Graham is hurt (though Jonathan Vilma and Lance Moore may be back), and the Bills, like the Jets, have ditched the laugh track for 2013.
This Bills season is exactly unlike all previous Bills seasons in recent years. The team prefers to be 4-3 or 5-2 at this point in the year, but with festering weaknesses that are just about ready to swallow their season whole. Instead, they are 3-4 and have strong infrastructure at most positions; their biggest problems are obvious skill-position injuries. The Bills are usually beneficiaries of great early-season luck, like a soft schedule or a string of tip-drill turnovers. This season, Bills quarterbacks cannot leave the clubhouse without getting hurt, but the team perseveres. The Bills like to do something unconscionably foolish just before they collapse -- signing Ryan Fitzpatrick to a massive contract, for instance. This year, they are quietly going about their business.
So the Bills are officially a tough out, though they are still an "out" for a contender playing at home. If finding a better way to lose is an important step toward winning -- and last Sunday showed that it may be -- the Bills have reason to be optimistic.
Prediction: Saints 28, Bills 20
* * *
4:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Steelers by 1 ½
An eerie calm has settled over the Steelers after two wins, but trouble is seething just below the surface. The Steelers now have a Le'Veon Bell Wildcat package, and Ben Roethlisberger is not crazy about it. "I don't like to go over and just be split out wide and take a chance that a defensive back is going to come up," he told a radio show on Tuesday. "I don't think we'll see a lot of it."
Uh-oh, Big Ben. Did you just feed Todd Haley's gremlins after midnight? Don't you know that most of his gameplans are designed simply to spite you? What else don't you like, Ben? Limburger cheese? I USED IT AS ICING ON YOUR LAYER CAKE. Don't like being hung upside down from your toenails? THAT'S HOW YOU WILL LINE UP IN THE SLOT WHEN BELL HANDS OFF TO ANTONIO BROWN, WHO THROWS TO JERRICHO COTCHERY. Don't like your house getting wrecked? SAY HELLO TO MY SLEDGEHAMMER. I NAMED IT BRODIE, BECAUSE IT WRECKS EVERYTHING! EVERYTHING!!!
Actually, Roethlisberger claims that he and Coach Destroy-Build-Destroy are getting along better than last year. "What's different this year is the ability and willingness to be open to change. For all of us," he said. Open to change, Ben? You will see how open I am to changing to an all screen pass and Wildcat gameplan. NOW OPEN WIDE SO BRODIE CAN CHANGE YOUR DENTAL PREMIUMS.
Prediction: Raiders 22, Steelers 13
* * *
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Cardinals by 2 ½
Injuries have a ripple effect that is often felt on special teams. The losses of Roddy White and Julio Jones thrust Harry Douglas into a starting job and rookie Robert Alford into return duties. Alford fumbled, so special teams coordinator Bruce Armstrong embarked on a midweek quest for a punt returner this week, though he would not reveal who is trying out for the job.
(Please be Asante Samuel please by Asante Samuel please be Asante Samuel please be Asante Samuel! We are dying to see a return man knocked over by the force of the punt.)
Cardinals fans are clamoring for Bruce Arians to replace Carson Palmer with Drew Stanton, because Cardinals fans are PTSD about quarterbacks. But Arians is holding firm. "I'm not a 'jump off the horse' kind of guy," he said. Arians has been through the desert on a horse with no name, and knows it is better than being on a horse named Drew Stanton.
Prediction: Cardinals 24, Falcons 21
* * *
8:40 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Seahawks by 11
Backup quarterbacks just aren't what they used to be.
When Kellen Clemens entered the NFL in 2006, the ranks of NFL backups included Kurt Warner, Kerry Collins, Jeff Garcia, Vinny Testaverde, Brian Griese, Gus Frerote, Charlie Batch and Daunte Culpepper. And those were just the broken-down starters, some of whom proved better than the prospects they were assigned to mentor. The ranks of professional backups-for-hire included Billy Volek, A.J. Feeley, Damon Huard, and Jamie Martin; Jay Cutler and Matt Schaub were among the prospects hovering on the bench. They were real backups, man: gnarly and battered in most cases, but with one or two starter-caliber skills, plus either a pedigree or prospect status to make things interesting.
Unfortunately, the Batch generation retired, while quarterbacks like Matt Leinart and Vince Young flamed out before becoming good backups-for-hire. That left the likes of Clemens to drift from failed prospect status to legitimate backup roles while barely ever seeing the field. Clemens has attempted 131 passes in six seasons. You cannot build a scouting report from those scattered throws, though when it comes to young quarterbacks shuttled between bad teams until they are no longer young, absence of evidence of competence qualifies as evidence of absence.
No wonder the Rams called Brett Favre, while Garcia announced his availability to the Browns. Kerry Collins answered calls from the Titans a few weeks ago, and we know Jeff Fisher has his number. The Rams settled on Brady Quinn as Clemens' backup, but Quinn is just another Clemens, a dreary pocket passer with no definable characteristics and few meaningful pass attempts. These off-brand backups are better than 40-something retreads, but the comparison is too close for comfort.
No waiver-wire special, rickety legend, or anonymous backup stands a chance against the Seahawks, anyway. Somewhere between Clemens and Favre, there exists a quarterback that we would actually like to see give it a try.
Prediction: Seahawks 31, Rams 13
* * *
1:00 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: 49ers by 16 ½
The Game Riffs players proudly present Jaguars Lifeboat, by John Steinbeck:
(The setting: a raft in the open ocean)
CHAD HENNE: Maurice? Is that you floating around? Grab hold of my oar, old buddy!
MAURICE JONES-DREW: Phew. Thanks. I nearly drowned. Luckily I caught hold of Blaine Gabbert's bloated carcass. What happened to our ship?
HENNE: I think the S.S. Boselli got struck by a torpedo. It sunk fast, because it was made out of recycled car bumpers and wadded Keenan McCardell jerseys. We are stuck in the middle of the Atlantic.
MJD: But you managed to rescue some people! There's Justin Blackmon, Luke Joeckel and Paul Posluszny! Hi guys!
HENNE: They do not have the energy to speak. We have been living for two days off rationed water and some brownies Eugene Monroe left behind when he was traded. Our only hope is to row to London, find some old helmets, play with zero energy and hope no one notices the difference.
MJD: No one will. But we should not give up hope. We are an NFL team! Someone will notice we are missing!
HENNE: Dude, we're the Jaguars. No one will notice we are gone until the draft. Even you have gotten so bad that fantasy football gamers have forgotten you.
MJD: I guess you are right. Look! Someone else is swimming out there. Grab my oar, buddy!
JIM HARBAUGH: Nein! Nein! Ich brauche keine hilfe.
MJD: Yes you do, buddy. Climb aboard. My name is Maurice.
HARBAUGH: Sie sind ein lautes Huhn
MJD: Insults will get you nowhere.
HENNE: Hey man, I don't know when you learned to speak German, but I think that guy came from the submarine that torpedoed us!
MJD: You are right. Also, his German is pure Google Translate, he is hoarding a bag of beef jerky, Funyuns and bottled water under his life vest, and he is clearly sweating, when he should be really dehydrated by now.
HENNE: You are right. The jig is up, buddy. I should have noticed it right away: no one breaks a sweat when facing the Jaguars!
HARBAUGH: Scheisse ! Fine you got me. I am the coach of the 49ers, but I like to sail submarines and torpedo passenger ships in my spare time for relaxation. I thought I could give my team some extra rest, and do the NFL a favor by preventing an embarrassing London game, if I just blew you guys up.
HENNE: Your plan backfired, though. You blew yourself up in the process.
HARBAUGH: That was on purpose. I have a self-destructive streak. Anyway, rescuers actually care about the 49ers. Here comes an NFL ship to rescue me, and I will be a nice guy and have them rescue you, too. Hey guys! Guys!
MJD: They can't hear you over that airplane engine. Who is flying an airplane out here?
HENNE: All I see in the cockpit is a pilot with a giant moustache. And a Flex-n-Gate logo on the side of the … oh no.
SHAHID KHAN: They said I was crazy to build a fighter plane out of fenders. But I will show them. Force my team to play in London, will you NFL? BOMBS AWAY. YEEE-HA!
ALFRED HITCHCOCK (making cameo): Ripping good aim, Mister Khan.
HARBAUGH: Oh well, we are all screwed. But at least we all get to starve and suffer in peace.
MJD: Look! A survivor in the water! Climb aboard!
GREG SCHIANO: This lifeboat was a laughingstock before I came aboard. We can make it ashore if we keep doing things Buccaneers-style. Now row harder, even if you have a major shoulder injury!
HARBAUGH: Well, aren't you going to kill him?
HENNE: I don't know. What do you do with a person like that?
Prediction: 49ers 34, Jaguars 12