Pre-Thanksgiving Sunday had its share of feel-good stories. It also had a few teams playing this Thursday that might have peeked ahead a bit.
Yes, the Turkey Day teams were 6-0 in Week 11, but not without some close calls.
The Lions have to be thankful for the quick healing of Matthew Stafford and the terrific story of Kevin Smith.
The Packers are grateful for the Buccaneers', er, interesting coaching decisions of Raheem Morris (check out the "Controversial call of the week" section for more).
The Cowboys are thankful for a clutch Tony Romo, a Redskins timeout and a field goal that might have angered Browns PK Phil Dawson.
Also thankful are the Ravens for a bobbled Bengals would-be TD and a few big plays by the defense down the stretch.
But let's start with Smith.
"There are a lot of great stories in the NFL, and I'm sure there are a lot of story lines today, but I think the NFL would be hard-pressed to find a better story than Kevin Smith," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said after his team's come-from-behind victory. "He's a guy that obviously has a lot of talent but, early on in his career, was set back with a lot of major injuries."
Smith was one of 24 players the Lions worked out on Nov. 4. The fact that he was even there probably was as much a favor to Smith as anything else, plus the fact that the Lions had been cycling through running backs with Jahvid Best sidelined with a concussion. Smith had gone through his daily routine of working out, playing with his kid and waiting for the phone to ring, and the workout was the chance Smith needed to show the Lions just how explosive he was, following ACL surgery, after having landed the past two seasons on injured reserve.
The Lions were blown away with what they saw. Smith cut with authority and was in terrific shape.
On Sunday, Smith rushed for 140 yards (8.8 yards per attempt) and two TDs and also had 61 yards receiving and another score in the Lions' 49-35 win over the Panthers. The rushing total was his best ever; the receiving yards were the second-most he ever had in a game. Smith had scored twice in a game only once before, in a blowout loss to the Bears in 2009.
Sunday, Smith was the driving force of one of the strangest, ugliest 49-point efforts — worth noting: seven Lions TDs, none by Calvin Johnson — against a Panthers team that has lost 12 straight on the road. Stafford looked awful early and then incendiary late. Guess the finger wasn't bothering him anymore. Schwartz joked that a change of throwing gloves was to credit for Stafford's night-and-day performance.
Whatever the explanation, the Lions had to get this one. Not because they face the Packers in four days. But because they are battling for their playoff lives in a crowded NFC field. Eight teams in the conference are above .500.
The Lions are a frightening bunch — to themselves, the opponents, pretty much anyone. They looked about as bad as they could have in the first 1½ quarters, turning the ball over three times in their first 16 offensive plays and affording the Panthers a 24-7 edge.
That's three 17-point deficits the Lions have overcome this season, the first time an NFL team has accomplished that in a season. You can't live like this forever, but you also can't say this team doesn't have some firepower.
The Packers have many reasons to keep winning, of course, not the least of which are those pesky 49ers on their tails, and really, the Packers would tell you that securing the top seed is the goal right now, although 16-0 would ensure that.
As Packers maven Aaron Nagler mentioned on Twitter, the last time the Packers were 10-0 was in 1962 when they won the NFL championship. They lost one game that season — to the Lions in Detroit, on Thanksgiving. Ladies and gentlemen, we have an early Thanksgiving game of note.
The Cowboys are a popular pick to win the NFC East, considering their schedule. They are usually November darlings, led by Tony Romo (18-2 record in November with a 49-12 TD-INT ratio), as they typically manipulate their Thanksgiving schedule well. But the Redskins might have caught them a bit off guard, as the game was far tougher than it perhaps should have been.
Romo was great, but the Redskins had all the momentum when Donté Stallworth, catching his first TD since 2008, tied it with 14 seconds left and forced overtime. The difference, in the end, was the kicking game: Graham Gano missed a 52-yard FG attempt in overtime whereas Dan Bailey, the silent unknown rookie killer, made his 24th straight field goal, a 39-yarder, for the win.
Barely. It just shaved inside the right upright. There were people in Cleveland who thought Dawson's 38-yarder was equally as good as Bailey's kick. It took roughly the same trajectory as Bailey's kick would, and yet the officials in Cleveland called it no good. Had the Browns lost that game, we might have a legitimate controversy on our hands.
The other two Thanksgiving Day teams, the Dolphins and 49ers, made it look relatively easy. Don't look now, but the Fish have not allowed a TD since before Halloween. Don't sleep on the Cowboys-Dolphins game as a real contest.
Smith, Stallworth, and throw in Giants MLB Mark Herzlich, making his first start Sunday night. Three pretty good stories Sunday.
But the real meat of the bird here is that we're set up for a fantastic day of football in a few days.
Controversial call of the week
There's aggressive and there's asinine.
Readers of this column will note that I enjoyed Mike Smith's fourth-down guts last week, but I did not like the hubris and what I am saying is overaggressiveness by the Bucs on Sunday in Green Bay.
Raheem Morris coached a great game and a horrible game against the Packers. Morris and his staff did their best work in film study, looking at some of the crossing routes that have given the Packers trouble and isolating Charlie Peprah as someone they wanted to go after defensively.
On the other side, the Bucs forced Aaron Rodgers to move to his left a few times, contained well and kept him checking down underneath. They played aggressive, man-to-man coverage a lot of the time and were determined not to give Rodgers a soft zone to dice up, which led to him being off on some throws. Only some poor tackling by the secondary prevented a closer game.
But Morris' decisions to — not once, but twice — go for onside kicks cost his team. The first attempt, after a Bucs TD had cut the lead to 14-10 in the final minutes before the half, probably gave Morris the best chance of succeeding on such a play. Alas, Michael Koenen's attempt did not travel 10 yards, and the play failed.
But Morris, who told his team all week it would be aggressive against the Pack, did not accept that conclusion.
When the Bucs scored a touchdown with 13:07 left in the game, cutting the lead to 21-19, Morris called for a two-point conversion. He chased points when there was too much game clock left. Although Kellen Winslow should have caught the ball, that's not the point. The failure left them down two scores when — no shocker — the Packers marched down and scored a TD eight plays and 5½ minutes later.
Then came Morris' trifecta, his third coaching misjudgment. Down two again, 28-26 with 4:25 left, Morris onside-kicked again. The Packers were ready for it. They recovered. A play that has about a one-in-five chance of succeeding when it's done in surprise fashion is about half as successful as that when it's done with everyone expecting it.
"We came here to win the game," Morris said, almost defiantly, when asked about his swashbuckling style in the game.
The Bucs gave the Packers about as good a run as anyone has this season. They might not have lost because of Morris' daring approach, but it certainly didn't help them win.
The wow factor
This week's edition features the proverbial "rookie wall" and the offensive rookies who hit it in Week 11:
As the college football regular season is close to wrapping up, it's perhaps no surprise that some of the NFL's best first-year players might be wearing down a bit in their first pro campaigns.
PFW associate editor Kevin Fishbain, who is in charge of PFW's weekly online Rookie Meter, which is posted late in the day each Tuesday (here's last week's edition), noted Sunday on Twitter that some of the top offensive rookies had a week to forget:
Dalton made plenty of big throws in a 373-yard passing game, but he also had a crushing intentional-grounding call in the final drive. The penalty led to a loss of downs and gave the Bengals one fewer play to try to win at the end. Yes, a questionable call on Jermaine Gresham's catch cost the Bengals a touchdown. But Dalton can't make that play.
It was actually Blaine Gabbert who had the cleanest stat line of the four starting rookie QBs, with no interceptions and one sack, but he could not generate enough successful drives to get the Jaguars a win over the shaky Browns.
Von Miller and some of the defensive rookies had fine games. But not so for the skill-position guys.
The kids — on offense, anyway — have had better Sundays than this.
Entertainers and icons
We honor those Lions, the most confusing and exciting team in football:
The NFC playoff picture is dramatically different Monday with the news that the Bears, who dismantled the Lions in Week 10, might lose Jay Cutler for the rest of the regular season. Maybe the playoffs, too.
The Lions, if they play the way they did in the second half against the Panthers, could be ready to take advantage. But the first-half Lions are still very, very much of their DNA. It's what makes them the hardest team to handicap heading into the final third of the season.
Three turnovers in the first 16 plays. Matthew Stafford looking like his hand is very much injured. Horrible mistakes on special teams against a Panthers team that was awful in that department coming in. Defensive lapses, missed assignments. It was mind-numbing early.
"I mean, we understand that not everything is going to go our way. We got to make sure we limit those," Lions DT Ndamukong Suh said. "One (turnover) is OK; two and three is going to be tough. We are lucky enough to have a strong but young team and know we have the firepower to do it. (We) just reach back down and, play by play, get the job done."
Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch led the charge defensively through most of the second half. They helped force three of Cam Newton's four interceptions with constant pressure despite the fact that the Lions were without key reserve DEs Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson. The defense allowed only seven second-half points and one drive longer than 44 yards.
The offense had six plays of 17 yards or longer in the second half and wiped out the 24-7 lead quickly. That's the power of this turbo offense, and maybe Smith's revival game (201 yards from scrimmage) can make the Lions more balanced offensively. They can't keep putting themselves in long-yardage situations, not with their awful conversion mark on 3rd-and-long plays this season.
Still, the early troubles give you pause.
"I'm more encouraged of how we finished the game after the first quarter," Lions C Dominic Raiola said. "The mental errors and the unfortunate breaks that we got, and then that all got cleaned up. Anytime you win a game in the NFL, you take it. We're talking about a team that took a lot of teams down to the wire. It was nothing different out there today. We've got to do a good job of putting this one behind us."
But ask yourself this: Do you trust the Lions? Are they the Arizona Cardinals of 2009? Or destined for a first-round flameout — or no playoffs at all?
Thursday should yield some answers.
Ten takeaways of the week
Here are 10 things I took from Week 11:
1. The Packers scored 35 points in their worst offensive performance of the season. Three touchdowns came courtesy of B.J. Raji, Tom Crabtree, and John Kuhn — at times, it seems anyone on this team can score. But the Bucs did some interesting things defensively, as I wrote above. When the Packers have gone five wide and it's not a quick throw, the pass protection has been shaky. OG Josh Sitton, in particular, has not played as well this season as last. Look for other teams to look closely at this and try to exploit it.
2. On the positive side for Green Bay, how good is Jordy Nelson? I am saying Pro Bowl-good. Greg Jennings is the de facto No. 1 receiver, but Nelson should earn an invite, too, the way he is playing. And how smart is Ted Thompson for signing Nelson to an extension before he started going off? Great move. Here's a prediction: Every white receiver who comes along in the next 8-10 drafts will be compared to Nelson, fairly or not. This kid is good.
3. What has gotten into the Dolphins? This hard-hitting defense is just the kind we thought the team could offer coming into season. But why now? Why after they had fallen from the race? Was the "Suck for Luck" talk that demeaning? Or has Tony Sparano really inspired this team? Whatever the reason, it's great coaching from a man who might not continue coaching this team but deserves a shot to be on someone's staff next season.
3. The Browns take points off the board, accepting a penalty after a made field goal, and (of course) follow it with an interception in the endzone three plays later. They also might have gotten jobbed on Phil Dawson's field goal that was ruled no good, but one he swears went through. Not Dawson's finest day. But the Browns win a strange, ugly game — something they apparently are good at. Per the NFL Twitter page, the Browns' five victories since 2009 when scoring 14 or fewer points (including Sunday) are the most in the NFL. So they have that distinction.
4. The Ravens' defensive backs played a good game against the Bengals, despite the high passing total for the Bengals. Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard and Lardarius Webb, in particular, stood out with impact plays. The Ravens don't win without those.
5. Everyone was quick to point out that Chris Johnson was "back" after last week's 100-yard rushing game, padded by some garbage-time running in a blowout. But anyone who watched Sunday's pounding by the Falcons can see that Johnson is not running with any kind of purpose. He finished the contest with 13 yards rushing on 12 carries and only 15 more yards on three catches. As associate editor Arthur Arkush pointed out as we talked during the game, it looked as though Johnson gave up on so many plays when the offensive line's holes were not huge, instead of trying to create. "We've been trying to diagnose the problem for a long time," Titans head coach Mike Munchak said. Part of it is that Johnson isn't trying as hard.
6. Think about how many QB homecomings we will have missed out on this season because of injury. We already lost Kevin Kolb playing the Eagles, and Monday the casualty was Matt Cassel against his former Patriots team. Looking forward, it's highly doubtful, based on early reports, that Jay Cutler will be on the field against the cheery Broncos fans in Week 14 in what would have been a fabulous matchup against Tim Tebow. The Josh McDaniels Bowl will have to wait for another day, it appears.
7. More on the Bears. Stealing another co-worker's line, this is when Matt Forté earns his contract, now with Cutler out. That was what PFW senior video producer Adam Anshell said to me as we sat down to tape Sunday night, and he is exactly right. Now more than ever, defenses will be designed to take Forté out — and that's not easy because he's a talented runner and receiver and the offensive line has improved markedly. But this is where he will earn his future pay, in these critical games with the QB out.
8. The Giants have to fear another late slide. It has been something of a hallmark under Tom Coughlin, getting out to a 5-2 (or better) record and then falling down the stretch, all save for the Super Bowl season, which included a rocky last few regular-season games. The offensive line has taken some blame and will take more until the Giants play a more consistent offensive four quarters. So, too, will the linebackers, who were exploited in coverage on Sunday against the Eagles.
9. Should the Panthers run the ball more? You don't want to take the ball out of Cam Newton's hands too much, but they also need a way to help out their maligned and shorthanded defense. The third-quarter offensive flops are becoming a weekly occurrence. The defense is incapable of stopping good offenses, and the special teams have had problems all season. Using a little more of their well-paid backs might make sense as Newton starts to force throws a little too much. DeAngelo Williams (who is very well-paid) and Jonathan Stewart ran effectively in Week 11, flashing shades of 2008.
10. DeSean Jackson fascinates me. On the one hand, he's the key to the Eagles' offense and he's always a home-run hitter on punt returns, even if he strikes out a lot there, too. But with him, you also get a mercurial, moody, me-first player who often will irritate his teammates as much as his opponents. Jackson's awful taunting call negated a 50-yard reception and really cost his Eagles team because he was stupid and selfish. But the Eagles also do not win this game without his big plays — including his 88 yards receiving and a critical 51-yard punt return that set up a TD. Now the decision comes whether to pay him long term. I say the Eagles will eventually pony up. Listen to the way Andy Reid talked about Jackson Sunday night, calling him a "core player," and you can get why I think that. As long as Reid is in Philly, expect Jackson to be there, too.
Top five, bottom five
My top five and bottom five NFL power-ranking votes this week:
1. Packers: Curious to see the effect of James Starks' injury. He was big Sunday.
2. 49ers: Stupid, stupid, stupid play by Dashon Goldson getting caught up in a sucker fight in a blowout against a bad team. Just dumb.
3. Steelers: Might be a different kind of break, but Ben's thumb isn't well, either. Just saying.
4. Patriots: Heading into the soft part of the schedule, but still questions about this team's long-term durability.
5. Saints: Huge matchup against the Giants Sunday. They can make a statement here.
28. Redskins: Gallant effort ends question about which QB should be next year's backup.
29. Vikings: Christian Ponder will struggle with Adrian Peterson out. But he's a tough kid who will learn from the experience.
30. Panthers: The Colts might be the last team they have a chance of holding to under 24 points this season.
31. Rams: It's more than getting Sam Bradford another receiver.
32. Colts: It's almost over.