Let the end-of-year rush begin! The Seahawks have worked the bugs and glitches out of their operating system just in time for a Christmas rollout: Look for Percy Harvin jerseys on lots of Santa lists. Robert Griffin hopes his season turns into an It's a Wonderful Life rerun at the end, while Ryan Tannehill tries not to be trampled like an unprepared shopper. Top defensive coordinators in Arizona and Philadelphia vie to one-up their offensive-guru opponents: The prize may be a snowbird trip to Tampa for a job interview in January. Broncos-Chiefs II comes so hot on the heels of Broncos-Chiefs I and Brady-Manning XIV that you barely had time to prepare, but that's December hustle and bustle for you! All this, plus Jon Bon Jovi and multiple ramgasms. Don't let Black Friday fall on you: Game Riffs are here to strike all the big red words from your little black book.
8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Giants by 1
Robert Griffin III, meet Synchronicity II: every single meeting with your so-called superiors is a humiliating kick in the crotch.
Yes, the coverboy of a hundred preseason periodicals took a knee to the junkyard from Aldon Smith on Monday night. No, there was no penalty: a swift kick to the Little Bobbies cannot cause a brain injury, at least to this generation, no matter how much actual thinking really goes on down there. Monday night's officials must have left their whistles in the dirt when Fed Ex Field was re-sodded (for Dan Snyder, "re-sodding" means "throwing fresh hay down"); there were indefensible no-calls both ways, but the tenderizing of Griffin was particularly shocking. If Tom Brady took punishment like that without penalty, New England would secede from the United States and set up Bill Belichick as king.
While you contemplate the horror of a mini-North Korea setting up shop just north of Manhattan, ask yourself why the NFL is so reluctant to flex awful NFC Eek games like this one out of primetime. The size of the media markets is one obvious answer. Thanksgiving limits the Week 13 alternatives, and the Broncos cannot play on Sunday night every single week.
But Monday Night's Shanahan snuff fantasy reminds us that it can be more entertaining to tsk-tsk at a pair of would-be powerhouses in crisis than to get more acquainted with, say, the Chargers. Large portions of the football world want to see Eli Manning grimace and Tom Coughlin scowl, want to jeer at Shanahubris and watch the Easter basket grass of FedEx Field come up in penny-pinching clumps. And yes, there are those who want to see the coverboy humiliated, who have been yearning for this backlash, even if this coverboy deserves better treatment, is too gifted and bright to take his turn down the benching well just because expectations were too high and surrounding talent too low.
Many miles away, something crawls through the slime of a dark New Jersey lake. It's Donovan McNabb. THIS IS WHAT I TRIED TO WARN YOU ABOUT, he mouths noiselessly. Griffin does not have to take McNabb's phone calls, but he has no choice but to take his medicine. Television wants to see Griffin fail in Prime Time. Sunday night offers a chance to defy the narrative, but the Redskins supporting cast doesn't have it in them.
Prediction: Giants 28, Redskins 21
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4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Broncos by 4
The Chiefs mascot was hospitalized on Monday. No, not Tamba Hali: Dan Meers, the guy who performs as KC Wolf, got hurt while rehearsing a zipline routine.
You will notice that KC Wolf, like EJ Manuel, eschews the periods in his first name; the war against unnecessary punctuation wages on. Fight the Power, mighty wolf! Also, the Chiefs mascot is a wolf, not a Native American, or a fire chief, or a walking glob of barbecue sauce. Finally, the Kansas City Star reports that Meers is a veteran mascot. He performed as St. Louis Cardinals mascot Fredbird, and before that as Truman Tiger for Mizzou. When I first read the article, I thought that Meers was injured performing "Freebird;" that guitar solo is dangerous, folks, but it made sense that the Chiefs would give fans something exciting to listen to when Alex Smith was on the field.
Meers' two-decade career arc reminds us that there is a hierarchy among mascots, just like players. Get well, Dan Meers. You may work your way up to Phillie Phanatic someday. (Click here for a more football-related Chiefs-Broncos preview.)
Prediction: Broncos 31, Chiefs 20
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8:40 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Seahawks by 5½
The 2013 Seahawks are proud to introduce … the 2013 Seahawks. No, not the team that has gone 10-1 with a stifling defense and a smoke-and-Skittles offense. Just in time for the Christmas shopping season, the Seahawks are unveiling the team they wanted to be when they traded a first round pick for Percy Harvin last winter.
Harvin is finally healthy, knock on an entire forest. He played 19 snaps against the Vikings without incident, then spent the bye week in a mattress factory. He is close to becoming the missing link to the Seahawks offense, the one that makes their underneath passing game more dangerous and takes some of the misdirection rushing heat off Russell Wilson's option plays.
Harvin is not the only element the Seahawks offense has lacked for weeks. Russell Okung also survived the Vikings game without further injury; center Max Unger returned earlier in the month, meaning that the Seahawks offensive line is more-or-less intact. Marshawn Lynch can stop breaking four tackles on two-yard runs and start breaking four tackles on 12-yard runs. Harvin and the healthy O-line are scary developments for opponents who weren't having much success against the hobbled Seahawks.
Not everyone on the Seahawks roster is healthy -- it's nearly December in the NFL, for Pete's sake -- and the double-down losses of cornerbacks Brandon Browner (hamstring) and Walter Thurmond (suspension) weaken the best secondary in the NFL. Facing Drew Brees with a #4 cornerback in the starting lineup is always harrowing, but the Seahawks have their full complement of pass rushers ready to compensate. Pete Carroll stays up nights wondering how to get Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Bruce Irvin onto the field at the same time, and while he rarely succeeds, three out of four is bad enough.
So Brees will try to exploit replacement cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Perrish Cox. He will have about 1.2 seconds to find them. And even if he succeeds three times, the Saints must cope with an offense that can protect Wilson and use Harvin as punishment for keying on Lynch. It's the no-win scenario the Seahawks hoped to unleash in September. They spent three months holding opponents to nearly no wins without it.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, Saints 20
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1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Jets by 1½
Ryan Tannehill has been sacked in the first quarter this season four times, in the second quarter eight times, in the third quarter 13 times and in the fourth quarter a whopping 19 times. He has been sacked 13 times in 103 dropbacks in the fourth quarter with the game within seven points. Not surprisingly, his effectiveness drops in the fourth quarter: two touchdowns, five interceptions, 5.98 yards per attempt, a 56.6% completion rate. Tannehill also runs more in the fourth quarter than other quarters -- 11 carries for 56 yards -- an indicator that many of his pass attempts become emergency pocket ejections.
It is funny, or perhaps disturbing, to think that the now-departed Dolphins linemen muttered ugly sentiments to one another under their breath all game until the fourth quarter, when one was too disheartened to block and the other was too self-congratulatory about his torments to stop a blitzing linebacker. That's not what happened, probably. The Dolphins current linemen are not exactly specimens of conditioning, so it is easy picture John Jerry and Bryant McKinnie are doubled over with burrito burbs in the fourth quarter. There may be a little to this, but not much. We can always blame the quarterback, which is easy and fun, but only slightly accurate.
The biggest cause of Tannehill's escalating sacks appears to be his coaching staff's unwillingness to adjust. Joe Philbin and Mike Sherman are in the denial about the existence of the slot corner blitz; if some defensive back attacks Tannehill from the left, he is almost guaranteed a free shot. Opponents slowly find this and other weaknesses in the Dolphins protection scheme while verifying that the Dolphins running game is a minimal threat. By the fourth quarter, the Dolphins are in constant down-and-distance dilemmas, facing blitzes that evolved to attack their weaknesses, and Philbin-Sherman have no ready countermeasures. So you get games that end like the Panthers game. And the Ravens game. And the Patriots game.
Have we procrastinated talking about Geno Smith and the Jets offense long enough? Good. Well, Smith has given back all the ground he gained early in the season, and now looks at times like he has forgotten how to properly grip a football. The Jets are taking a long look at … whoops! Looks like we spent the word count on Ryan Tannehill, everybody. Enjoy the game!
Prediction: Dolphins 22, Jets 16
* * *
1:00 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Eagles by 3
In a year of outstanding offense-minded rookie coaches, no two are more different than Bruce Arians and Chip Kelly. Arians is the fatherly NFL lifer, a guru of the single-back passing game clinging to last decade's state-of-the-art, come hell or high sack totals. Kelly is the Oregon hipster who repurposes obsolete tactics into something fresh and functional. He's a compulsive convention tweaker who won't officially name a starting quarterback because he wants to see just how crazy it will make the Philly media. You can never even tell if criticism of Kelly is ironic or not, and he would not have it any other way.
Throw in droning Professor Trestman in Chicago, plucky lateral logician Doug Marrone in Buffalo, and Peyton-approved Mike McCoy in San Diego, and this is a diverse crop of offensive minds. But Trestman and McCoy are being sabotaged by their defenses. (Marrone is just getting the Buffalo Experience). Arians is getting a huge assist from former Eagles defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who took a very good Cardinals defense and made it better by reining in a little of the go-for-broke blitzing. Kelly is getting results from former Cardinals assistant Billy Davis, who reconfigured Bowles' conservative scheme into something much bolder, with the help of a box of rummage sale defenders.
Look for Kelly to fare better against Bowles than Arians does against Davis this week: Kelly's New Age scheme easily downsizes into a conservative gameplan against a tough defense, while Arians' distrust of any pass protection over 50 can be exploited by a 3-4 defense. So Kelly's new old-school is more old-school than Arians' old new-school. Is that irony? It's getting harder to tell.
Prediction: Eagles 23, Cardinals 17
* * *
4:05 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Bills by 3½
Rob Ford and Jon Bon Jovi …
One was a wild-and-crazy rock demigod from the cocaine-and-hairspray fueled 1980s. The other was the duly-elected mayor of one of the largest, most vibrant, most cosmopolitan cities in North America.
One is now a savvy, civic-minded entrepreneur whose commitment to urban renewal predates his emergence as a symbol of hope for disaster-ravaged communities. The other is now (allegedly) a ranting, speed-and-booze addled lunatic.
The only thing Bon Jovi and Ford have in common, besides their Freaky Friday destiny transplant, is the Buffalo Bills. Bon Jovi is thinking of buying them. Ford's Toronto hosts them and has flirted with the idea of adopting them. Two uniquely North American success-and-failure stories, bound together by a last place team that can legitimately point to a 4-7 record as a sign of progress.
Ralph Wilson must be way, way, waaaaaaay cooler than you think he is.
Prediction: Falcons 27, Bills 21
* * *
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Chargers by 1
Linebacker Rey Maualuga is set to return from a three-game absence, but he may wind up sharing a role with Vincent Rey, who had three sacks and an interception in relief. That's right: the Bengals have a middle linebacker controversy. Between two guys named "Rey." And they wonder why they get little national attention. Luckily, H.A. Rey is no longer with us; otherwise we would be treated to Curious George Goes to a Bengals Game. (The story ends with the inquisitive monkey saving the team by reordering all the names on Mike Brown's draft board.)
The Chargers survived a late-game scare when right tackle D.J. Fluker needed to be helped off the field after hurting his knee while blocking for an extra point. The Chargers have been especially thin at tackle, so losing Fluker would have been a major blow, but the behemoth should be back for Sunday. Several teammates had to help Fluker off the field, and all were briefly hospitalized for hernias and pulled muscles; they are okay, and the Chargers are purchasing a trolley hoist to cope with future Fluker injuries.
Both of these teams are pretty good, and this game has legitimate playoff implications. This preview should have been taken a little more seriously, but something about the phrase "important Bengals-Chargers game" just won't allow itself to be typed into this word processor without a fight.
Prediction: Bengals 34, Chargers 27
* * *
4:05 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: 49ers by 9½
A ramgasm is a game in which the various components of the Rams central nervous system -- the defensive front four, the young skill position players, the veteran coaching staff -- work in unison to provide explosive football satisfaction. When properly aroused -- and division rivals have proven highly stimulating in the past -- the Rams are capable of thunderous ramgasms that yielded a 4-1-1 division record in 2012 and a blowout win against the Texans earlier in the year. Unfortunately, the Rams were often spent after such climactic victories and needed a few weeks to recover.
Having beaten the Colts and Bears by a combined 80-29 score in their last two games, the Rams have suddenly shown the capacity for multiple ramgasms. Is this the feminization of football we have been warned about? Or did the Rams have a warm shower and some grapefruit juice during the bye? Either way, the Niners must be wary. They caught the Rams in a trough in their 35-11 September victory. This Rams team is more confident in its scheme and personnel.
Then again, the 49ers are at home -- the Rams look like a dome-and-turf team -- and the 49ers looked rejuvenated on Monday night, though if you looked carefully their win was just the usual Kaepernick-to-Boldin routine against a bad opponent. The 49ers defense is as tough as ever, and if a ramgasm persists for three weeks or more, it may be time to consult our doctors.
Prediction: 49ers 25, Rams 14
* * *
1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Patriots by 9½
January 13th was a lifetime ago for many of us. The Patriots beat the Texans 41-28 in the playoffs that day, and while the game was not close after halftime, the gap between the Texans and Patriots looked bridgeable. If one team were to add some Pro Bowl-pedigreed free agents and a dynamic rookie in the draft, while the other team had its skill-position core torn apart by free agency, injuries, and felonies, it was easy to imagine that one team might consolidate its place at the top of the AFC while the other suffered a massive collapse.
Funny how these things work out, isn't it? The Texans did everything right in the offseason. Sure, you can quibble about how much Ed Reed had in the tank in hindsight, but the signing made sense at the time. DeAndre Hopkins was (and is) the exact player the Texans needed; he also looked like the exact player the Patriots needed. As we filed stories about arraignments and undrafted Patriots rookies in August, it was a foregone conclusion that the Patriots had lost a little ground, while the Texans, at worst, solidified their position atop a weak division. If you read a Ten December Games to Circle article in the summer, this game was on it.
Well, un-circle it. Take a moment to reflect on the wreckage of the Kubiak Texans, fresh off a loss to the Jaguars and in need of a complete offensive restructuring. Then marvel at just how smoothly the Tom Brady Patriots transitioned to this new era, even if they have lost an inch or two of ground. The Patriots are unique in that rivals rise, challenge and are crushed to rubble while the Patriots themselves seem eternal. January 13th was a lifetime ago for the Texans; it was a blink of the geological eye for the Patriots.
Prediction: Patriots 28, Texans 17
* * *
1:00 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Vikings by 1
In the last five weeks, the Bears have allowed 209, 199, 145, 174, and 258 rushing yards. Eddie Lacy hammered them, Reggie Bush juked them, Tavon Austin reversed them, Ray Rice watched his blockers topple them and Benny Cunningham … who the heck is Benny Cunningham? The Bears run defense is awful without linebackers Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams and tackle Henry Melton. The Bears are in big trouble whenever they face a quality running back.
Oh dear, here comes Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 100 yards against the fully-healthy Bears defense in September and has rushed for 1,185 yards and 14 career touchdowns (4.9 yards per carry) in 11 games against a Bears defense which usually is far better than this one. This is a fantasy football alert to hide under your bed on Sunday if you are facing Peterson. It's also a wake-up call to those who think the Bears will make a playoff push the moment Jay Cutler returns. The Bears only face one other marquee rusher after Peterson -- Shady McCoy and the Eagles in Week 16 -- but a team that makes Benny Cunningham look like Eric Dickerson is in deep trouble against anyone. That includes the Vikings, who are not too proud to tie their division leaders in purple knots.
Prediction: Vikings 23, Bears 22
* * *
1:00 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Panthers by 8
The upcoming Buccaneers coaching vacancy looks better and better every week. Mike Glennon has thrown 13 touchdowns and four interceptions in 269 attempts. You may remain skeptical of his "franchise quarterback" bonafides, but he is a tall rifle-armed guy putting up solid numbers in an unfriendly offense for a team that hates its coach. Few rebuilding teams have a building block like that at quarterback.
The Bucs will enter next season with a three-headed monster at running back. The defense is loaded with talent, much of it young. The cap situation is manageable: most of the big money is tied up in the right places, and there are some easy-to-cut line items in the budget (sorry, Michael Koenan). The weather is great. The taxes are low. The bar set by the predecessor is flush with the ground.
You can picture Lovie Smith, Ray Horton, Todd Bowles, Jon Gruden and all the usual suspects circling Raymond James Stadium, or perhaps landing at Heathrow and trying to figure out whether the Glazers really live at Buckingham Palace. You can also picture Greg Schiano donning an Uncle Si beard and hipster glasses and waltzing into Mark Dominick's office. "Why no, my name is … Craig Paino! I am a Pete Carroll assistant. I (facial tics) re … re … respect the players. Rah, rah sis-boom-bah, you (grrrrrrr) princes of Western Florida, you."
This looks like a vintage pratfall game for the Panthers, but so did last week's game: screwed-up opponent, letdown potential after two important victories. The Panthers overcame some early miscues, and engineered two second-half bootstrap drives for the win. It's probably time to forget everything you thought you knew about the Panthers. Next season, you can forget everything you thought you knew about the Buccaneers.
Prediction: Panthers 24, Buccaneers 13
* * *
1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Browns by 7
The Downtown Athletic Club should award the Heisman at halftime of this game. Or more precisely, this game should be wedged sideways into the Heisman Trophy presentation show. We could then watch all the Heisman hopefuls (60 of them, at the moment) try to maintain polite smiles while watching two of the teams most likely to draft them. The kid who makes it to the third quarter without a) bursting in tears or b) stabbing a ballpoint pen through his knee ligaments in a desperate attempt to slip to the Chiefs wins the trophy.
Actually, the Browns are not serious Teddy Bridgewater/Jadeveon Clowney contenders, just as Bridgewater and Clowney are not serious Heisman candidates. The Texans and Falcons have burrowed beneath the Browns (allowing Gary Kubiak to coach again was a brilliant move by Rick Smith), meaning that the Browns have once again failed to even go into the tank correctly. The Jaguars have also allowed the Texans to slip down to their level and could wind up with a third-to-fifth pick to show for a season of epic ineptitude.
Perhaps both teams should play for pride. Both have had too many Decembers like this.
Prediction: Browns 16, Jaguars 10
* * *
1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Colts by 4
The remainder of the Colts schedule mapped out:
This Game: Fall behind 28-6, lose 31-28.
At Bengals: Fall behind 30-3, come back to win 31-30.
Texans: Fall behind 31-3, lose 38-11.
At Chiefs: Fall behind 34-2 with their only points coming on a blocked-punt safety, come back to win 37-34. This win simultaneously clinches the division for the Colts AND the Broncos as part of some freaky Peyton Manning harmonic convergence.
Jaguars: Fall behind 37-0 and lose 40-11. All of the starters are rested except Trent Richardson, who gets 25 carries to get things going and gains 38 yards.
Playoffs: Oops! By earning the #3 playoff seeding, the Colts face the worst AFC Wild Card team, which is some terrible team. And since the Colts play terribly against terrible teams, they lose. If only their schedule was harder so they could earn home field advantage, or easier so they could squeak in as a Wild Card, they might last longer in the playoffs. But when you live in upside-down land, it's hard to keep your head above the waterline.
Prediction: Titans 31, Colts 28