From scandals to strokes, NFL teams are going through an awful lot right now. But the Week 10 show goes on, with many teams searching for enough stability to remain competitive. The Packers must prop up Seneca Wallace now that their injury plague has claimed Aaron Rodgers. The Bills quarterbacks are actually getting healthier as they face the highly unstable Steelers, while the Jaguars face hard truths about the well-being of the franchise and the Seahawks try to win both the rap battle and the on-field battle. Even the Dolphins offensive line has stabilized temporarily, while Greg Schiano has been quiet. Too quiet. Whether the crisis is physical, mental, emotional, or all of the above, Game Riffs have the Week 10 prognosis.
Monday, 8:30 p.m.
Line: Dolphins by 2 ½.
The Most Dysfunctional Sporting Event on Earth has been flexed. The game will take place Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. instead of Monday night. It will be held at the National Labor Relations Board office in a commercial park off I-4 instead of Raymond James Stadium. Also, it will not be a game, but a four-hour workplace appropriateness seminar titled "Seriously? Who do you think you are, O'Bannion from Dazed and Confused?" Coffee and stale muffins will be served.
Game Riffs knows to tread lightly and responsibly on the most sensitive topic in the NFL right now, even though at its core it's a tale of wealthy 300 pound men with zero conflict resolution skills. (I save my deeper dudgeon for 14-year olds who go a month without eating lunch and are afraid to change for gym.) The long-range fallout of the developing Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin case is unpredictable, although when everyone's older than 18 and the sums reach five figures, it's extortion, not bullying. In the short term it caused the following mind-boggling situations:
- Greg Schiano looks like the most responsible coach in the stadium on Monday night, and the Buccaneers look like a happy family.
- Mike Pouncey, who was subpoenaed in the Aaron Hernandez murder case last week, is now the median Dolphins offensive lineman on the controversy scale.
- Bryant McKinnie, the Creature That Ate Fells Point, a man whose late career has been defined by financial, weight and impulse-control issues, is now one of the normal guys.
- The Dolphins offensive line, barring further developments, now consists of McKinnie, Nate Garner, Pouncey, John Jerry and Tyson Clabo, left-to-right. This configuration played better against the excellent Bengals defensive line last Thursday than any of the more talented Martin-Incognito lineups, offering a market-driven response to all of the Martin is a wuss sentiment.
Martin was a valuable starter and an excellent prospect up until the moment the Dolphins lined him up next to Incognito at the start of camp after weeks of Incognito's brand of "motivation." He was a wreck from the moment the first training camp air horn blew. All of the tough-guy nonsense turned a second-round pick into a sled, allowed a former goon to revert to his worst impulses, and made a potentially decent offensive line terrible. Every team's goal is to create a great team, not perpetuate a manly culture; where these objectives don't intersect, the first one takes absolute precedence, no matter how many manly 27-year olds disagree. Eradicating the Incognito crap makes as much sense from a dollar-and-cents, X-and-O standpoint as from a human decency standpoint.
Come to think of it, there is no need for the seminar. We just had it. And both coaches and all perpetrators will not be needing employee training in a few weeks, anyway. Play ball, gentlemen.
Prediction: Buccaneers 20, Dolphins 17.
Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
Line: 49ers by 6.
You don't have to believe in Cam Newton to believe in the Panthers.
You can believe in the run defense, which allows just 79 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry. Luke Kuechly is one of the best linebackers in the NFL. Thomas Davis is healthy, in November no less. Rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short create interior disruptions. The Panthers shut down Marshawn Lynch back when the Seahawks offensive line was healthy. They can shut down Frank Gore.
You can believe in the skill position talent, which goes beyond Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams. Mike Tolbert and Greg Olsen are all-purpose weapons who are finally getting the right amount of touches. Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn provide a possession-and-speed tandem just good enough to take some heat off Smith downfield. Jonathan Stewart is coming back. The Panthers can be as "multiple" offensively as any team in the NFC, as multiple as the 49ers were last year, before their receiver corps became a one-man band.
You can believe in Ron Rivera's fourth-down epiphanies. You can believe in Graham Gano's booming kickoffs and field goal reliability. All you have to do to believe in the Panthers is not disbelieve in Cam Newton. Have faith the size of a mustard seed in Newton (who has looked tough, decisive and resourceful for most of this year) and the Panthers will move mountains.
If Newton commits four turnovers and spends the fourth quarter hiding under a down comforter, please disregard all of this. Faith is a delicate thing.
Prediction: Panthers 26, 49ers 24.
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Line: Broncos by 7.
The Broncos are in good hands with Jack Del Rio. He can be just as conservative as John Fox, and Peyton Manning can tune him out just as easily during two-minute drills and other occasions when offensive boldness is required. So Fox can adjust his hospital bed, relax and do something few people have done this year: watch a Chargers game.
You may have seen highlights of last week's overtime win by the Redskins and thought, "oh yeah, the Chargers! I forgot about them." Between 3 a.m. Wednesday East Coast kickoffs and opponents like the Jaguars, the Chargers have slipped into anonymity. If you have been napping (or actually sleeping) through the Chargers' .500 start, here's an update on what is going on.
Philip Rivers looks revitalized this year. Antonio Gates is healthier than he has been in years. But when Rivers throws to Gates, it's like the middle-aged couple who come back from a romantic getaway at Inn of the Throb and plop on the couch in front of House Hunters International with a bowl of caramel corn. It works for them, but not as well as it should.
Keenan Allen is young, exciting and amazing, but I will spare you a squicky continuation of the middle-aged couple metaphor.
Ryan Mathews is the featured back, and Mike McCoy is as enthusiastic about that as he should be about a guy who fumbles the moment you think he has solved his fumbling problem. Mathews is like the 7-foot basketball center who hits the bench with two fouls six minutes into the game and disappears for two hours. If Danny Woodhead were one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier, McCoy would be dangling Mathews in front of the Colts on a fishing line.
The Chargers' last-second, goal-line failure against the Redskins was no fluke. The team is just 5-of-13 on converting goal-to-goal touchdowns. That will happen when your star tight end is getting old and your running backs are a chronic fumbler and a guy who looks like the landscaper's assistant's nephew.
Defensive coordinator John Pagano survived the Chargers regime change, but few of his players did. The Chargers defense is nearly incapable of big plays. Think of Pagano as the guy who popped the corn for Rivers and Gates.
Manti Te'o is a starter. You may see him standing around at the end of some plays.
There you have it: the 2013 Chargers! They will be overlooked this week because of all of the excellence and drama in Denver. It's a role that suits them.
Prediction: Broncos 37, Chargers 27.
Sunday, 1:00 p.m.
Line: Bengals by 1 ½.
Andy Dalton is a doubt vampire. He feeds on your skepticism about his ability to play quarterback. The more you doubt him, the stronger he becomes, but if you start to believe in him, he weakens.
Evolution has defined the shape and features of the doubt vampire. Everything about Dalton is designed to make you question him. The red hair from a touring production of Happy Days: The Musical. The bright, bushy eyebrows that perch on his forehead like twin irradiated millipedes. The throwing motion that makes every deep pass look like an 80-yard Hail Mary into the teeth of a monsoon. Once Dalton gets enough people wondering what he's doing in the NFL -- with a 17-6 loss to the Browns, for example -- he has the power to go on a tear, throwing 11 touchdowns in three games while beating the Patriots and trouncing the Jets. Ah, but media attention is direct sunlight for the doubt vampire, so as soon as Dalton had a chance to demonstrate that he has "arrived" in a prime-time game, he had to start throwing passes five yards out of bounds and getting sacked in the end zone (or just on the fringe of it) in overtime.
Expectation management is the key for a doubt vampire like Dalton. He must generate enough disbelievers to catapult him into the Super Bowl, but at the same time he must do well enough in key situations to keep the Bengals within range of reaching the Super Bowl. Experts in the occult call this the "doubt slingshot." In the past, the solution was easy: play poorly against the Steelers and Ravens but well against everyone else. Dalton's career passer rating against each of the traditional AFC North superpowers is precisely 67.8. If that is not proof he was up to something supernatural, nothing is.
The Ravens are now mediocre, and the Steelers downright terrible, so Dalton faces a conundrum. Does playing poorly against the defending champions generate doubt or alleviate it? Can he afford to risk a win some people might still find "impressive," weakening him for the playoff chase? Does he dare play so poorly against a not-yet-eliminated division foe that the national skepticism gives him his doubt muscles?
There is also a good chance that no one is paying attention to the Ravens anymore, so Dalton can do whatever he wants.
Prediction: Bengals 24, Ravens 20.
Sunday, 1:00 p.m.
Line: Seahawks by 6.
Russell Wilson is featured on the new Eminem album! A song called "The Monster" name-checks Wilson, who joins a short list of football personalities who earned mentions in Eminem songs: Troy Polamalu on "Untitled," Todd Haley on "My Dad's Gone Crazy," and a few others. Here's the rhyme:
But if one kid out of 100 million
Who are going through a struggle feels and then relates, that's great
It's payback, Russell Wilson falling way back
In the draft, turn nothing into something,
Still can make that star into gold chump,
I will spin Rupelstiltskin in a haystack...
Eminem is a draftnik with a grudge. The Marshall Kiper LP. Who knew? He's also an artist willing to revise his lyrics: the Wilson rhymes were clearly written after November of last year, when Wilson firmly established himself as the steal of the draft. A copy of the original lyrics of "The Monster" reached Game Riffs headquarters, and it shows just how inspiring Eminem found the NFC West quarterback situation last August:
Dropping bombs deeper than Matt Flynn.
Don't know who you think you're messin' with
My title's safe, I'm just like Alex Smith
Sit on the bench, you little Kaepernicks
Think you can beat me, you...
Oh, I think you can figure out where that was going.
While Mr. Mathers avoids Brent Musburger and brainstorms rhymes for "Incognito," Matt Ryan watches tape of the Falcons playoff win 10 months ago and feels like he is 75 years old. Ryan's Falcons kicked sand in the face of a Seahawks defense that was already being hailed as the NFL's best for two-and-a-half quarters, then for 25 more precious seconds after the Falcons defense took the on-field staycation that helped Wilson catapult to hip-hop glory.
The Falcons, it turned out, were one step from the Super Bowl but a half-step from a major rebuilding program. Getting Steven Jackson and Sam Baker back against the Panthers last week did not help them. Roddy White's return (questionable for Sunday) will make the Falcons more competitive in future weeks, but the White-versus-Richard Sherman rivalry now looks pretty one-sided. The Falcons are worn out at some critical positions and lack experience and talent at others. All Ryan did with his playoff heroics was muddle a changing of the postseason guard.
The Falcons are now irrelevant, while the Seahawks are now the subject of rap references by a 40-something white guy. Hmm, maybe the difference between these teams is not as great as we think.
Prediction: Seahawks 20, Falcons 17.
Sunday, 1:00 p.m.
Line: Lions by 2 ½.
Welcome to the Black 'n' Blue division, where everyone is 5-3 and on crutches. The Lions are the healthiest and best-rested guys in the room, and when we last saw them outfoxing the Cowboys two weeks ago, they had also (somehow) become the smartest.
The Lions are not the only NFC North team trying something new. In a break from tradition, the Bears offense was just fine without Jay Cutler; it was the Lance Briggs-less defense and suddenly error-prone special teams that fell apart in a narrow victory. Josh McCown still looks like Flea Market Favre if you squint, and Marc Trestman let him sling his water pistols against the Packers, saving Matt Forte for a 10-minute fourth-quarter drum solo. Unfortunately, the rookie linebackers treated the off-tackle run like it was quantum mechanics, and a blocked punt and a surprise onside kick kept the Packers in the game despite the 1988 Toyota Corolla parked behind the center.
Cutler may return soon, but he's not the veteran the Bears need most. Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene and other defensive youngsters must get smarter, faster. But if the Lions can suddenly become geniuses while sprinting to the line in the final seconds, then the Bears can do it, too.
Prediction: Bears 27, Lions 21.
Sunday, 1:00 p.m.
Line: Packers by 1. (Off many boards at presstime)
Seneca Wallace knows football like a 33-year old, 190-pound offensive coordinator. Seneca Wallace plays football like a 33-year old, 190-pound offensive coordinator. The once-dynamic Cyclones star and scrambling "slash" backup now runs about as well as the fastest guy in the YMCA "Over 30 and Under 6" basketball league and throws about as far as Christian Ponder with his fingers taped. He would look great carrying a clipboard on the Iowa State sideline. He looked like a man in need of career counseling on Monday night.
Wallace is only on the field because Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson are dealing with a crippling case of backup quarterback denial. The Packers wasted a lot of time developing Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman before deciding they liked neither, then flirted with Vince Young for a weird week. They had no backup whatsoever in early September; coordinator Tom Clements is lucky Wallace arrived, or else he might be the one handing off to Eddie Lacy. Thompson's Felix the Cat bag of street free agents contains no quarterbacks; it's like the old "no wishing for more wishes" genie rule. So the Packers are stuck trying to be the Vikings for a few weeks, without Adrian Peterson.
The Eagles offense is like the Aurora Borealis right now: breathtaking when it happens, but no one is 100 percent certain of the precise conditions required to make the magic. An injured and-or option-challenged opposing defense certainly helps. The Packers fit the profile closely enough.
Prediction: Eagles 22, Packers 13.
Sunday, 1:00 p.m.
Line: Titans by 11 ½.
The Jaguars have a weekly routine called "Tell the Truth Monday." Its alternate name is "Eighteen Waking Hours of Weeping." Gus Bradley and his coaches join the players in expressing painful honesty, which is the only kind they've got right now.
The bye week forced Bradley to double up on the sodium pentothal, but football clichés are their own kind of truth. Bradley spoke about getting back to football fundamentals, for example: "Over the course of time, we felt like we got away from that a little bit," he said on Tuesday. He could not tell the troops to give 110 percent, however, as they would be obliged to tell him that is mathematically impossible.
"The last four games offensively we're seeing better perfection both in the run game and the pass game," Bradley said of the Jaguars' red-zone performance. This is where the truth gets slippery. The Jaguars are 2-for-11 converting touchdowns in the red zone in the last four games, and they are 2-of-8 in goal-to-go situations. Then again, kicker Josh Scobee is 10-for-10 on field goals for the season. So in a way, "better perfection" of the Jaguars red zone offense literally means delivering Scobee to the field in the most efficient way possible. There are lies, damn lies, statistics, Jaguars statistics and Jaguars truths, in that order.
After "Tell the Truth Monday," the Jaguars could go back to lying to themselves for the rest of the week.
Prediction: Titans 31, Jaguars 14.
Sunday, 1:00 p.m.
Line: Colts by 9 ½.
The Texans kept the Colts in Sunday night's game with a missed field goal, a shanked punt and (let's face it) a major sideline health crisis that probably shook the Texans up a little bit. The Colts broke their streak of beating great teams and losing to bad ones just in time for the Rams.
But the Colts are really going to miss Reggie Wayne. Andrew Luck tried to pretend old college pal Griff Whalen was Wayne last week, but they looked like they were playing Frisbee at 3 a.m. on the quad. Trent Richardson got his hands on a Reggie Bush 2007 highlight reel and thinks it's an instructional video. The Colts need to fine him $500 the next time he ignores a double-team block for four yards and tries to juke outside for a one-yard loss.
Darrius Heyward-Bey was also knocked out of the Texans game, but he should be ready to play, and he joins T.Y. Hilton and Donald Brown to give Luck options besides Trent and Griff. Moving forward, the Colts need a more sustainable alternative.
Prediction: Colts 24, Rams 20.
Sunday, 1:00 p.m.
Line: Giants by 7 ½.
The Giants believe they are always in the Super Bowl picture because they always are in the Super Bowl picture. They were 6-6 and coping with a four-game losing streak when they finally pulled themselves together and trudged toward a championship in 2011. And that's nothing. In 2007, they were 4-12 and hiding for their lives in the American embassy in Tehran. Ben Affleck devised an elaborate ruse to free them which involved falsifying an entire NFL season and getting them onto an airplane full of Iranian dignitaries bound for the Super Bowl. It's true: David Tyree is not even a real person, but a character created by Jack Kirby!
So the Giants calmly went about their business with a 2-6 record during their bye last Sunday afternoon. But the Cowboys and Redskins each scratched out late victories, Nick Foles threw two fewer touchdowns in three hours than Bart Starr threw in 1967, and the reality now is that only a miracle could save the Giants this season.
The Giants now face the same Raiders that turned Foles into Captain Marvel, but the Raiders are without Darren McFadden, and Terrelle Pryor (knee) may not be 100 percent. This will be a brutal game to watch, but if you miss it, you won't be able to say you were there when the Giants kick-started the most unlikely playoff run ever.
Prediction: Giants 31, Raiders 20.
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Line: Cardinals by 2 1/2.
Don't watch this game, Gary Kubiak. The TIA is a scary, dangerous ailment, but true body-and-soul rest can work wonders. Watching Case Keenum and Ben Tate get knocked around by the best defense no one is talking about won't help you recuperate.
Visualize your happy place, coach. You are on a warm bay, with palm trees, fresh breezes and conch fritters. You work on... a pirate ship! And your boss has a warm, inviting name, like "Lovie." Lovie lets you call all the stretch runs and rollout passes you want -- the more predictable, the better the match for his defense -- and all of the other pirates are just happy that Captain Pelican-Poop Crazy Pirate was thrown overboard.
So don't watch this game, coach: dream of a future when you are living in some other state (with no income tax!) and the stresses of "Fire Kubiak" and "Burn Schaub" are distant, regrettable memories.
Texans fans can also take this advice.
Prediction: Cardinals 19, Texans 14.
Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
Line: Saints by 6 ½.
When Jerry Jones said in late August that Tony Romo had "the kind of skills you might see in a Sean Payton," we thought it was just the latest stage in the three-year ritual humiliation of Jason Garrett, a combination sadistic loyalty test/9 ½ Weeks-style alt-courtship dance for the irrevocably closeted. Little did we know that it was just an installment of a new Jerry Jones feature called The Old Cowboys Did Things Better Than the Current Cowboys, an admittedly odd performance art choice for the man in charge of the current Cowboys.
Other installments of Jones' OCDTBTCC: Romo must be more like Roger Staubach (the pilot episode), last month's Deion Sanders could cover Calvin Johnson (the current guys don't have a chance, so why bother) and Dez Bryant should know not to remove his helmet because "that's an Emmitt Smith rule." (In the old days, when Cowboys did something foolish, they put their stamp on it.) Future installments include "Cole Beasley could be the next Golden Richards" and "George Selvie must find a way to make himself taller so he can be Jethro Pugh."
In other words, Jones won't be looking longingly at Payton along the opposite sideline. Garrett, however, may be looking across with jealousy. Payton gets to call his own plays. Garrett must watch as Bill Callahan slows Dez Bryant's production the way no opponent possibly could, then lip-synch Jones' opinion on how well the playcalling structure is working. "I think that structure has worked well for us," Garrett said on Tuesday, his soul trying to escape his mouth with every word. "That doesn't mean that because we're in that structure, everything is going to be perfect. We need to keep working hard to make whatever structure we use the best it can be for our players to execute ball plays." As soon as Garrett replaces "structure" with "blissful constraints" in his remarks, his transformation will be complete.
Jones has said nothing about Callahan, but probably wishes he were more like Norv Turner.
Prediction: Saints 27, Cowboys 24.
Sunday, 1:00 p.m.
Line: Steelers by 3.
EJ Manuel is cleared to practice for the Bills! Alleluia! We missed you, EJ. We missed your... the way you... that is, we can close your eyes and picture signature plays like...
Hmmm, it seems that Manuel threw just 150 passes and rushed 25 times before getting hurt, so we don't have much of a mental picture of him. Nor do we have a clear statistical picture. Manuel completed just 56.7 percent of his passes before going down, a lower rate than Thad Lewis. His longest pass play was a short slant to Steve Johnson that turned into a 45-yard romp against the Panthers. He has a pair of 19-yard runs to his credit, but Manuel's signature scramble was a 14-yarder against the Browns that ended with him clutching his leg on the sideline. We just don't know much about Manuel.
Then again, the introduction to this capsule could easily have read ...
Someone besides Thad Lewis, Jeff Tuel and Matt Flynn has been cleared to practice for the Bills!
...and it still would have merited an alleluia. Doug Marrone does not plan to rush Manuel back to the field (Lewis is also ready to return), because Marrone is thinking long term and is not a crazy person.
You knew that was a segue, right?
The "Todd Haley is insane" jokes may be getting old to some readers, but Game Riffs would like to offer the following evidence of Haley's running back usage obsessive compulsive disorder. Here are Le'Veon Bell's carry totals since he entered the lineup: 16, 16, 19, 13, 16. The numbers 19 and 13 average to 16, so when Bell carried 19 times against the Ravens, Haley had to compensate with 13 carries in the Raiders loss. Haley probably stayed up every night jackhammering holes into the floors of leased properties until he corrected the pattern of 16.
Jonathan Dwyer's carries in the last month: 3,1,3,1. Dwyer had a 30-yard run in his lone carry against the Patriots, but Haley dared not break the pattern; he was having a hard enough time getting Bell to 16 in the blowout loss. Felix Jones' carries: 5,5,1,1. For the record, one-carry games for non-fullbacks are uncommon on most teams; running backs either have a defined role that gets them into the game for several series/touches, or they don't play on offense. Dwyer and Jones are carrying on a fine tradition that started with Jackie Battle, Kolby Smith and Dexter McCluster in Kansas City and continued through Chris Rainey and Baron Batch last year.
And by "carrying on a fine tradition" I mean "enabling a crippling neurosis."
Antonio Brown was benched briefly at the end of the Patriots game but will start this week. Mike Tomlin said that Brown made an execution mistake, but we now know better. Brown has exactly 720 total yards from scrimmage. Haley was seen staring at the math expression "8 X 9 X 10" scrawled across a whiteboard and saying "A square. A cube. So many factors. So beautiful."
Prediction: Bills 24, Steelers 20 if Manuel plays. Steelers 20, Bills 16 if some other quarterback plays.