Halloween is over, but some NFL imposters are not ready to show their true faces just yet. The Chiefs are still hiding behind a parade of opponents with third-string quarterbacks. The Seahawks are still using a scary defense to cover up an offense that should not cross the street by itself. Jason Campbell and Case Keenum looked convincing as starting quarterbacks, but it may have all been an elaborate charade, while no disguise in the world could allow Tony Gonzalez to sneak out of Atlanta. Bill Belichick dressed as a pirate for Halloween, but who are all of these people dressed as Patriots? Peek beneath the masks with the Week 9 Game Riffs.
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4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Patriots by 6 ½
Remember when the Patriots were guarded, to the point of paranoia, about their private lives? Can we go back to that? Please oh please?
Leaving Tom and Gisele aside -- and hoping that the Toto in her basket was a stuffed toy -- the most revealing thing about the Belichick photo is the background. Blackbeard and his babe are vamping it up in an office full of notebooks and binders. We should have known that Belichick cannot be bidden from his game-planning lair, even by a bodice-clad lass of low standards. Or perhaps the eyes are just instinctively drawn away from Belichick-as-randy-privateer, his right hand reaching provocatively toward the bikini zone. It's a defense mechanism that keeps the human race propagated.
Halloween costumes look silly during Halloween and completely ridiculous afterward. Our brief forays into sassy swashbuckling are best locked in a vault the moment November arrives, especially when we are dour, doughy middle-aged men. But seeing the Patriots in costume makes you wonder if they have been in disguise all year. Have the 2013 Patriots been masquerading as the 2005, 2007 or 2010 Patriots, when really they are something considerably less?
The men wearing Patriots uniforms are becoming increasingly unfamiliar. Tackle Sebastian Vollmer (ankle) joined an groaning injury list last week. Jerod Mayo is on IR. Hidden beneath the glove on Brady's lion costume are fingers that were swollen to kielbasa size against the Dolphins. The tale about Rob Gronkowski returning and everyone living happily ever after turned out to be a ghost story. No wonder Belichick won't leave the office for a photo op: It is taking all of his (and Brady's) tactical creativity to keep the Patriots in contention.
Yes, they are 6-2, but the Patriots endure long stretches where they don't defend the run well, are so-so against the pass, have no downfield passing game and make kiddie mistakes in the short passing game. And now, protection will become a bigger issue. Football Outsiders ranks the Patriots 12th in the NFL in DVOA, a fringe playoff team kept afloat by tight wins, Brady brilliance, and (perhaps just a bit) by divisional foes still frightened by the costume.
If the Patriots are masquerading, the Steelers are in no position to unmask them. All they can do is claw their way to 18-19 points and hope their defense is still scary. The Patriots may be able to carry on this pirate charade through November, if not longer. By the postseason, they hope to learn that the power to go home was within them all the time.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Steelers 19
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1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Chiefs by 3
There is an old sports adage about teams with soft schedules: "You can only beat the teams you are scheduled to play."
The adage is false. A team can do far more than "only beat" their scheduled opponents. A team can beat those opponents convincingly. It can establish dominance over weak opponents. It can show progress as a season goes on, with strengths getting stronger while flaws get corrected. A truly great team with a soft schedule does these things. The Chiefs are doing the opposite.
At press time, it was not clear whether the Bills would start Thad Lewis (ehhh), Matt Flynn (ewww) or Jeff Tuel (errp) at quarterback. No matter who starts, he will be the third consecutive third-to-ninth string quarterback the Chiefs have faced this year, and the fifth straight backup or first-year starter.
The Chiefs defense has established a kind of insider-trading agreement with these quarterbacks. The third-stringers have great-by-their-standards games against the Chiefs defense, which established its reputation by shutting down Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Michael Vick. The Chiefs defense performs well enough to keep the final score low so their offense can squeak out a victory. Everybody wins: Case Keenum gets to further his career with 271 yards and a touchdown against a top-ranked defense, while the Chiefs get to remain a top-ranked defense by beating Case Keenum. It's a house of cards, and the weather is about to get windy.
Make no mistake: The Chiefs defense is very good. Its value is just dangerously inflated right now. Think of the Chiefs defense as an over-speculated tech stock. Now check out the graph of the Chiefs' overall DVOA rating at Football Outsiders. The smart money bailed a few weeks ago. Black Sunday is Nov. 17. The Chiefs could surprise us, but you don't want to bet the farm on it.
This game would have been a fashionable trap/upset pick if not for the Flynn/Tuel scenario. As it now stands, some Bills quarterback will throw for about 250 yards. The Chiefs will barely win a low scoring game. We will then marvel at how well the Bills played using crude flint tools, and also how tough the Chiefs defense has become. This is last call before a bye week. Then the real (really, really real) quarterbacks crash the party. Enjoy your drinks.
Prediction: Chiefs 23, Bills 16
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Chargers at Redskins
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Chargers by 1
Redskins fans and sports lovers all over the nation breathed a sigh of relief late in last Sunday's Broncos-Redskins game when they learned that Dr. James Andrews was OK.
Andrews had not been heard from for weeks; after offering an opinion on baseball player Manny Machado, he vanished, except for some unsubstantiated remarks about Rob Gronkowski in mid-October. But soon after Robert Griffin fell to the ground clutching the healthier of his two knees, Doctor Andrews materialized on the Redskins sideline to tell Ian Rapoport of NFL Network that Griffin was "OK." With those two syllables, Griffin leapt to his feet and kicked a Buick through a brick wall with his non-injured knee, while Andrews rubbed the Eye of Agamotto and slowly faded from this corporeal realm. Andrews is still watching over Griffin, Gronk and all of us, folks. All is well.
While Andrews earned his promotion to Sorcerer Supreme, Pierre Garcon was inspired to Gertrude Stein-level poetry by his team's offensive ineptitude. "If you suck at passing, you suck at passing," he said on Monday. A loss is a loss is a loss, and the Redskins have many ways of generating them that involve neither Griffin nor Garcon: pass protection, pass defense, kick coverage and so on. But yes, passing is a problem, despite Andrews' wizardry on Griffin's appendages. Perhaps, when it comes to the 2013 Redskins, there is no there there.
Prediction: Chargers 34, Redskins 28
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1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Panthers by 7 ½
(Tuesday, at the office of Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff)
TONY GONZALEZ (WEARING A FAT SUIT, RED WIG AND MOUSTACHE, CHIEFS APPAREL): Hrm, hey Tom, can I talk to you a minute?
DIMITROFF: Sure Gonzo. That's a cute Andy Reid Halloween costume!
GONZO: Hrm, no, you must me mistaken. It's me, Big Red himself: Andy Reid! But, hrm, Tony Gonzalez is a heck of a player, and I want to talk trade for him.
DIMITROFF: Heh, heh. What's your proposal, "Andy"?
GONZO: With all the injuries, hrm, the Falcons have to rebuild. And the Chiefs … I mean, MY Chiefs … are a contender that needs a tight end upgrade. Tony, hrm, he is a legend in Kansas City, and it would be a heck of a story if he came back before we faced the Broncos. I am prepared to offer three first-round picks. Just sign this already notarized contract. The time is yours.
DIMITROFF: This stationery has a "from the visionary mind of Scott Pioli" watermark, Gonzo. You must have taken it when you left Kansas City. Anyway, we cannot trade you. The Panthers may be playing well, but we have beaten them in five of our last six meetings, so this could be our chance to turn the corner. And Matt Ryan is an incredible young quarterback and an amazing competitor. He needs every possible offensive weapon to demonstrate his awesomeness.
GONZO: Wait a minute: That suit you are wearing is off the rack. And that is not your real hair, it's a Robert Downey wig!. You are not Tom Dimitroff at all. You … you …
MATT RYAN: (ripping off disguise) Ha ha, that's right Gonzo. It's me! Happy Halloween, big guy. You are stuck with me until you retire.
GONZO: (Sigh). Guess Plan B won't do me any good. I am going to go put this Patriots hoodie back in the bottom of the compost heap.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Falcons 20
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1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Cowboys by 10
Modern educational software is designed to challenge young learners without frustrating them. The trick is to slowly increase the difficulty level of tasks, then decrease it when the student responds incorrectly. So if a tyke correctly solves 7 + 3 and 13 - 5, the challenge climbs to 8 X 6, then 124 divided by 9, then perhaps the second derivative of f(x) = cos(x) if the kid is on a hot streak. One or two incorrect responses, however, bring things back to 7 + 3 territory.
The Cowboys schedule is designed according to the same principles. You did so well against the Redskins and Eagles, why not try something harder, like the Lions? There, you almost got it … but, oops, a mistake. Don't get frustrated. Oh no, Dez Bryant is having a tantrum! Here you go: the Vikings. The safe, easy Vikings.
Bryant's sideline snit last week turned out to be less than the sum of its parts. He was not being insubordinate so much as stating the obvious (the Cowboys game plan was a dirty dishrag) over and over again, loudly. Bryant should get his touches this week, though Tony Romo will be under pressure now that Brian Waters is out for the season. Yes, the Cowboys once again have guard issues, which they treat like calculus problems, even though finding an adequate guard should be simple arithmetic.
The Vikings' net passing yardage has gone down for four straight weeks, with the help of three different quarterbacks. Joe Webb generated 157 passing yards in last year's emergency playoff start against the Packers, more than Christian Ponder (145) gained last week against the same team. It's a point worth pondering, or at least webbing, but some multiple-choice tests offer "none of the above" as the correct answer.
Prediction: Cowboys 31, Vikings 14
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1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Saints by 6
The Jets refuse to be average like the average "average" team. They insist on being average in their own extraordinary way.
The Jets offense in odd-numbered weeks: 26.25 points per game, 362 yards per game, 1.25 turnovers per game. The Jets offense in even-numbered weeks: 9.5 points, 288 yards, and three turnovers per game. The team is 4-0 in odd weeks, of course, and 0-4 in even ones.
If sports journalism has taught me anything, it's that a pattern which repeats four times is an ironclad lock to repeat forever and ever. Geno Smith and the Jets offense will look great against the Saints! Don't worry about how unpredictable and diverse Rob Ryan's defense has been this year: The Jets don't just have twintuition on their side, but a pattern. The only question in what next week's bye will do to the Jets system. Since it comes on an even week, the Jets could skip a bad performance, making it possible for them to go 9-7 for the year while staying true to their odd-even system.
If my mathematics degree taught me anything, it's that real life is not like Team Umizoomi. The Jets offense is fluctuating around some middle axis, albeit one that is improving slightly as the weeks go on. The most likely scenario in any week is for their offense to veer toward that middle ground. And since their defense suddenly allowed 35 points last week, that should mean an easy day for Rob and a brutal day for Rex.
Prediction: Saints 27, Jets 16
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1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Titans by 3
Jeff Fisher has built a Rams secondary that drives receivers to angry distraction and a front four capable of sacking Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks at a twice-per-minute rate. Unfortunately, Fisher is one of those defensive coaches who insists on saddling himself with the most mediocre offensive coordinators he can possibly find.
In his Titans heyday, Fisher relied on Les Steckel. Steckel was a holdover from the early-1980s, when the slot receiver was a state-of-the-art idea, and the Titans went as far as their defense, five-yard Steve McNair passes and 400 off-tackle runs by Eddie George could take them. (Pretty far, when McNair and George were at full steam, but still.) Later, Fisher switched back and forth between the late Mike Heimerdinger and WAC/Mountain West lifer Norm Chow, whose tactics were more up-to-date but only slightly more effective. Fisher football at its best in the post McNair-George era was a top-ranked defense leading the team to a 13-3 record while Kerry Collins threw nine-yard passes to Bo Scaife.
Fisher's latest restrictor plate coordinator is Brian Schottenheimer. Schottenheimer's career accomplishments: A) Receiving genetic material/surname from Marty. B) Coaching Brett Favre to one of the worst seasons of his career and inspiring Favre Retirement II. C) Coaching Chad Pennington to the worst somewhat-healthy season of his career. D) Mark Sanchez threw 20 interceptions as a rookie, but he had it, baby. E) Developing Sanchez until his completion percentage reached a staggering 54.8. F) Cultivating a morbid fascination with Kellen Clemens, which continues to this day.
In other words, other than a brief sojourn into Mangini territory, Schottenheimer has ridden the coattails of defense-oriented empire-builder coaches, since birth. His strangely horizontal passing strategies have frustrated rookies and Hall of Famers, and they were doing Sam Bradford few favors before the ACL injury. Clemens is right at home completing 48 percent of his passes for five yards per throw, but Fisher needs to pay more attention to what's going on offensively. He does not have McNair, George, or even Kerry Collins and Chris Johnson anymore. He does have Robert Quinn and Chris Long, however, and he needs an offense that can support them.
Prediction: Titans 19, Rams 9
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4 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Raiders by 2 ½
Eagles fans spent the offseason waiting to watch a team with a creative, option-flavored offense led by a dynamic young quarterback. They get their chance this week, thanks to Terrelle Pryor and the clever, unpredictable system designed by Greg Olson and Al Saunders.
Nick Foles replaces Matt Barkley for the Eagles, so Chip Kelly's offense will upgrade from "two field goals per month" to "adequate." But opponents were figuring Foles out before he got hurt. If the defense over-commits to stopping LeSean McCoy, Foles' bootlegs will gain six yards, not 60. So, go ahead and load up to stop McCoy.
At least Eagles fans can be optimistic about their defense, which held the Cowboys and Giants to 32 total points while Barkley held the offense to three. Oh wait, it seems that the Eagles traded starting nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and a sixth-round pick to the Patriots for a fifth-round pick. Since the Patriots are likely to pick near the end of the fifth and the Eagles near the start of the sixth, the Patriots got a player who was worth a three-year, $11-million contract in March in exchange for about 15 slots of draft order.
Here's a life lesson: Any player worth anything to the Patriots is worth more than a third-day draft swap. Bill Belichick must have been wearing the pirate costume when he made the trade. And he may have been grabbing old buddy Chip Kelly near the bikini zone.
Prediction: Eagles 26, Raiders 20
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4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Ravens by 2 ½
Jason Campbell completed 22 of 36 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns against the Chiefs last week. Couple those impressive numbers with the fact that the Browns gave the Ravens a handful in a 14-6 loss with Brandon Weeden at the helm, factor in the Ravens' usual travel woes, and this looks like an upset recipe.
But before anyone bets the 401K on the Browns, we should examine Campbell's fishy numbers a little. Back in the Chiefs capsule, we explored the pyramid scheme which is propping up several AFC reputations, but there is more going on here. Campbell is a check-down survivalist. Like many journeyman backups/custodians, he knows that coaches are strangely tolerant of three-yard passes on third-and-15 from backup quarterbacks. By the time the head coach wakes up in the middle of the night panting "that's not game management, he's just padding his completion percentage!" the check-down survivalist has earned a cushy job as Russell Wilson's backup.
So while Campbell was 8-of-11 on third downs against the Chiefs, only three of his completions netted first downs. Campbell threw passes of zero and one yard on third down, as well as a seven yarder on third-and-30. Re-categorize the five failed check downs as incomplete passes, and you get a truer sense of Campbell's performance: He made a handful of fine throws to keep the Browns in a close game, but he also spent much of the afternoon making three-and-outs look more statistically appealing.
The Ravens have a pretty good pass defense, too. Look for Campbell to keep it close again. If he was capable of more, he would be doing more.
Prediction: Ravens 24, Browns 20
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8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Colts by 2 ½
Case Keenum gives Gary Kubiak his best chance of keeping his job. And when your ankle is caught in a bear trap in a mountain canyon, sawing your leg off, cauterizing the wound in a bonfire and hopping down the riverbed eating bear droppings offers your best chance for survival.
OK, Keenum is not that bad. He tries hard, has nice touch on the ball, figures out the pass rush now and then. He owns lots of NCAA passing records. He's like a fun-sized Kevin Kolb. Keenum is yet another inexperienced quarterback earning misplaced optimism thanks to a pretty good game against the Chiefs. His big plays were mostly screen-and-runs or scramble-and-heaves, and the Chiefs defense attacked as soon as Kubiak ran out of disguises. But Keenum is not Matt Schaub, so stadium fire marshals can remain on code green.
While the Texans get the hometown kid ready, the Colts are trying to replace Reggie Wayne. No receiver on the roster can do what Wayne did, but Trent Richardson could help the Colts become more run-oriented by, you know, not being terrible. Richardson's prospects are not good: His "Overall" rating in the Madden video game slipped from 87 to 85 last week, and we all know that slips in Madden rating affect real-life performance, not vice versa. For example, Peyton Hillis was legally dead before the Giants signed him.
When informed of Richardson's rating decrease, Colts owner Jim Irsay rage-quit out of Grand Theft Auto V and ordered Ryan Grigson to trade a 2014 draft pick for Franklin Clinton.
Prediction: Colts 26, Texans 17
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4 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Seahawks by 16
The Seahawks used innovation to take the NFL by storm last year. They may want to get innovative with the cutting-edge football strategy called "blocking." The Seahawks have offensive line injury problems, but what happened on Monday Night was ridiculous. Darrell Bevell must cope with the fact that his line is terrible with Russell Okung hurt, his receiving corps is nothing special now that Sidney Rice is out, and opponents just aren't freaking out at the sight of a read-option anymore.
The Seahawks are in the same boat as the Chiefs right now: Beating backup quarterbacks and teams that don't care 14-9 is great, but it will only get you to second place in your own division. The difference is that the Chiefs can consider a playoff berth an accomplishment. More is expected of the Seahawks.
Saturday is All Souls' Day for Catholics. That means that the tykes at Our Lady of Perpetual Discipline are instructed to pray for the souls of departed loved ones who are working off their non-mortal sins in purgatory, a kind of celestial drunk tank. As a child -- and this is the kind of experience that proves to be really formative with you -- I spent many a post-Halloween evening binge-praying Hail Marys to commute the sentences of relatives like Uncle Carmine, who carried a racing form and was still wearing a fedora in 1982, so they would not suffer a moment's more punishment and despair than they had to.
What this has to do with the Buccaneers, I will leave you to decide. Purgatory, unlike h-e-hockey sticks, does not have a warden, but if it did he would probably refer to himself in the third person and assign Darrelle Revis to zone coverage.
Prediction: Seahawks 19, Buccaneers 13
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8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Packers by 10 ½
Josh McCown, this is your life:
You completed a 28-yard pass to Nate Poole at the end of regulation in the final week of the season to give the Cardinals an 18-17 victory over the Vikings a decade ago. The win knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs, to the jubilation of Packers fans, whose team made the postseason as a result. You actually threw two touchdown passes in the final two minutes to erase a 17-6 deficit (two point conversions ain't your bag), but residents of Green Bay gave Poole, not you, the keys to the city. You got to deal with Dennis Green for two years instead.
You backed up Jon Kitna for the Lions the year coordinator Mike Martz made Kitna throw 596 passes and endure 63 sacks. You probably spent the year handing Kitna acetaminophen tablets and hiding inside the Port-a-John.
You opened the season as the Raiders starter in 2007 because JaMarcus Russell wasn't ready. He's still not ready. You spent two years in Carolina waiting for John Fox to give up on Jake Delhomme. Waiting for Fox to give up on Delhomme was like waiting for Russell to be ready.
You replaced the inept Caleb Henie as Jay Cutler's backup after Henie's 0-4 performance (including a memorable loss to the Broncos) knocked the Bears out of the playoffs. With nothing to play for, you finished the season by doing the one thing you are (barely) known for doing: You beat the Vikings in Week 17.
And now, here you are at age 34, a fill-in starter once again, still an unpredictable, scrambling gunslinger. The 81 passes you have thrown in the last six years don't tell us much, but two things are certain: 1) Compared to kid-brother Luke McCown, you are Earl Morrall. 2) Packers fans have not forgotten you, though they think of you as "the guy who threw to Nate Poole."
Prediction: Packers 28, Bears 17
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(Notes: Hat-tip to reader "Zorba" (@scotchromanian) for some of the Redskins jokes. The second derivative of cos(x) is -cos(x). Uncle Carmine is not a real person but a composite of several great uncles who died under various states of indictment. The Belichick pirate pic remains the squickiest thing I have seen all year, and I am on the Internet nearly 12 hours per day)