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The First Fifteen: Week 12

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Recent posts by Eric Edholm

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Posted Nov. 22, 2011 @ 1:21 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

1. Right about the time the turkey comes out of the oven (that puppy needs to rest; you want the juices to redistribute and not leak out all over that cutting board), we should be headlong into a pretty good football game. Whereas past Lions games on this day had been a bit of an insipid appetizer, this one is the main course right off the bat. The Packers are appearing ever so slightly more vulnerable just as the Lions, Thursday's hosts, have shown new life. The networks will market it as a matchup between QBs Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford, who rebounded from two early picks against the Panthers with five TD passes, but the real marquee battle will be happening in front of Rodgers. The Packers can do incredible damage with their five-WR sets, but the offensive line has not protected well recently in those formations. The Lions' front four could dominate this group, and though DT Ndamukong Suh has not taken a significant step in his second season, he was the driving force, along with DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, in forcing four Cam Newton interceptions with incessant second-half pressure. If Rodgers can't stay upright, he can't have his 10th straight game with a QB rating north of 100.

2. There are many fascinating aspects of this Lions team and a hundred different factors that could make them anything from a Super Bowl team to a pre-playoff flameout. And all those elements were on full display in the 49-35 win over the Panthers. One very interesting change in the team's makeup was the emergence of Kevin Smith as a top back. Whether he can keep it up through the final third of the season, considering his past knee problems, is another matter entirely. But there's no question he gave the team a boost and could be a steadying force on a team that badly has needed one in the backfield since Jahvid Best suffered a concussion. In the other backfield, the Packers could be facing an adjustment if RB James Starks (knee sprain) can't go. Starks has carried the ball between nine and 13 times in every game, and his consistency and hard running have been underrated elements of the Packers' offense. If he's out, Rodgers will have more on his plate, and that is normally a great thing. But the Bucs surprised and threw Rodgers off a little with a steady diet of pressure and man coverage. Look for the Lions to do the same.

3. The sandwich game, Dolphins at Cowboys, has some nice history. Tony Sparano, who has turned the Dolphins around in short order the past three games, was Bill Parcells' right-hand man in Dallas. Of course, there's always Jimmy Johnson, who coached both teams. And who could forget Leon Lett? Short of snowfall, we might not get that wild a game, but another underrated story line is Matt Moore. He spent a training camp with the Cowboys and appeared to have made the team before being a final cut at the end of the preseason in 2007. He was added by the Panthers, who turned to him as a surprise starter at the end of his rookie season the same year. Moore leads a resurgent Dolphins offense that has averaged nearly 29 points the past three games into Dallas against a Rob Ryan-coached defense that looked shaky against Rex Grossman and the Redskins on Sunday. Of course, this is Tony Romo's month. He's 18-2 in November with a 49-12 TD-INT ratio and is coming off another fine OT performance. Remember, he and the Cowboys are the only team to beat the 9-1 49ers, but the Dolphins will give them a battle.

4. Jackie Harbaugh once walked in on her two boys, separated by a mere 15 months, in the midst of a childhood brawl. You know, the way boys do but mothers never can understand. "You're brothers!" she said then. "You're not supposed to fight like that!" And both Harbaugh boys, Jim and John, coaching two division leaders in the 49ers and Ravens, respectively, with a combined record of 16-4 this season, swear they have not fought like that since. Their last meeting in any kind of organized sporting event, they believe, was an American Legion baseball game — a 1-0 win by John's Baskin Robbins club (the elite Ann Arbor baseball troupe back in the day) over Jim's Sheriff's All-Stars, a sort of rag-tag bunch of freshmen and sophomores who couldn't make the Baskin team. The Sheriffs were coached by their father, Jack, who also coached a little football on the side. "That was a big game," Jim said. "Heartbreaking for the Sheriff's All-Stars. Almost pulled off the upset; that would have been up there with 'Rocky' and 'Miracle on Ice.'" So short of any random but spirited "tennis ball basketball game on a coat hanger rim" (a game they invented in the Harbaugh backyard) contests that might have broke out through their youth, Thursday's matchup between the brothers in Baltimore should be the most important match in their athletic annals. The Harbaughs might quickly become the First Family in NFL this season, and that's quite the statement considering we have the royal clans named Manning, Matthews and Ryan making their indelible marks, too.

5. "I don't think this will be a big trick 'em game," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, given the brothers' familiarity with each other. Both brothers expect a real slug-it-out contest given the two good defenses and run games the Ravens and 49ers feature. "You look at the other side of the ball and you look at what's going on over there and it kind of reminds us of our own defense," Ravens RB Ray Rice said. There are other similarities when you dig deeper. Both teams feature young, former first-round QBs in Joe Flacco and Alex Smith who haven't always endeared themselves to fans. And you'd be hard-pressed to name too many clearly better middle linebackers in the game than the 49ers' Patrick Willis and the Ravens' Ray Lewis. The big question is whether Lewis, who Sunday missed his first game since 2007, can return healthy for this game. When asked on a national teleconference, John Harbaugh said, "You think I am going to tell you that? I have nothing to gain from that." Without Lewis on the field, the Ravens' defensive backs made a number of big plays against the Bengals, but the defense allowed 483 yards, including 364 passing. But good things happen when Rice touches the ball 20 times or more. The Ravens have learned that the hard way a few times, losing when he has not handled it enough.

6. The Giants are tied with the Cowboys and will have four days until their Monday-night game against the Saints knowing whether Dallas won or not on Thanksgiving. But the Giants have their own issues to worry about, namely the "pathetic" run game (as Tom Coughlin called it after the loss to the Eagles) and a young group of linebackers that was eaten up with underneath crossing routes by Vince Young. The poor blocking up front put the pressure on Eli Manning to make all the plays, which he could not do the past two games. The Giants are vowing not to make this a familiar reprise, despite a brutal three-game, 13-day stretch with the Saints, Packers and Cowboys. In fact, the Giants could be playing in Dallas in Week 14 with a .500 record. Every Coughlin-coached Giants team has started 5-2 or better, but it often does not end well. They also felt like the Eagles roughed them up and took a cheap shot at Manning on an interception. Remember the Saints' penchant for taking shots at quarterbacks.

7. Yes, the Saints would not hesitate to give the hometown boy a rude welcome back to New Orleans. They were supposed to face the other Manning — Peyton or something — earlier in the season, but he was hurt and the Saints treated the Colts like they were rude neighbors in a 62-7 rout. That will not happen against Eli and the Giants, who might have lost two straight but are still a playoff-caliber team. Meanwhile, the Saints are sitting in great shape, having rested after their Week 11 bye, and they hope to have MLB Jonathan Vilma back after reports he had knee surgery. Four of the Saints' final six games are in the Superdome, including this one. They're up a game and a half in the NFC South and badly want to win games against the Giants and Lions, their next two foes who also are in the wild-card picture. "This six-game stretch becomes that race for each weekend trying to put distance between yourself and the teams behind you in regards to the division," Saints head coach Sean Payton said.

8. At least one NFL team official believes Matt Leinart can manage the Texans' offense given the team's strengths around him, which includes (finally!) the return of Andre Johnson. Leinart has good tight ends, a great 1-2 tandem at running back, a very good offensive line and a defense that ranks in the top five in yards allowed, points allowed, sacks, interceptions and third-down conversions. The other thing going for Leinart, this week anyway, is that the Texans are playing the Jaguars. Rookie QB Blaine Gabbert missed two shots to give his team the win in Cleveland and has offered the least optimism of any of the four starting rookie quarterbacks (we're not counting Jake Locker yet), even with Gabbert's buddy Christian Ponder struggling of late. The Jags' defense (third in yards allowed, fifth in points allowed) has been excellent, but the run defense has given up some yards, including a combined 154 and a TD to Arian Foster and Ben Tate when these teams met three weeks ago.

9. Bears fans were stunned when they heard the Jay Cutler news. Their team was one of the hottest in the NFL, and Cutler was playing the best ball of his career. But now it's back to Caleb Hanie, the unlikely star of the NFC title game against the Packers last season, who made some mistakes but also shocked Green Bay with his ability to run the no-huddle offense, beat man and zone pressures and doing so having come off the bench cold. Hard to imagine the Bears wanted Todd Collins in the game before Hanie, but that is ancient history. Hanie and the Bears head to Oakland to face another team that has handled a quarterback change rather well after a rocky start. Against the Vikings, Carson Palmer looked worlds more comfortable than he had previously, checking off plays and coaching up receivers on the sideline. This is the beauty of the NFL: Hanie hasn't attempted a pass in 10 months, Palmer was hitting up Norv Turner for tickets six weeks ago and now they meet up in a game between teams in the heart of the playoff race.

10. Who inspires less trust right now, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Mark Sanchez? Yes, Sanchez got the better of the Bills up in Buffalo three weeks ago, but he was mentally and physically dismantled a bit in a brutal four-day span against the Patriots and Broncos in primetime losses. The teams have equal 5-5 records and remain in the crowded AFC playoff field, but the Jets are the only real contender here. The Bills have crumbled since Fitzpatrick signed his contract extension, losing three straight by a combined 106-26 score. The latest big injury was CB Terrence McGee, who likely will miss the season, joining stalwarts Eric Wood and Kyle Williams on the shelf until 2012. After losing three straight earlier in the season, the streaky Jets beat up on a then-reeling Dolphins team at home. The Jets hope they can fatten up on a similarly struggling Bills club in this one.

11. Don't be fooled by Monday's Patriots-Chiefs score. Early on, Tom Brady was having no luck finding open receivers and his offensive line was flailing around, missing blocks and giving up sacks. If you watched Sunday night's Eagles-Giants game, you saw a similar thing: the Eagles' defensive front overmatching the Giants' blockers. I smell a matchup. Patriots OLT Matt Light left the Chiefs game with an apparent knee injury and his prognosis wasn't known for Sunday's game against the Eagles in Philly. But it could be first-rounder Nate Solder at left tackle going up against Trent Cole and ORT Sebastian Vollmer, who has struggled with speed this season, up against Eagles DLE Jason Babin. The other injury question (oh yeah) is with the Eagles' quarterback, Michael Vick. He was replaced ably by Vince Young, who fought through three interceptions to guide the game-winning 18-play drive in the final minutes. Whomever gets the start will face a Patriots secondary that is down to spare parts at almost every spot unless CB Devin McCourty and S Patrick Chung can heal quickly. Edge Eagles if WR Jeremy Maclin can heal in time for Sunday.

12. The Falcons and Bengals remain strong wild-card options in their respective conferences and each team faces also-rans at home. These are can't-lose games. The Vikings come into Atlanta shell-shocked, having lost two straight and are likely playing without RB Adrian Peterson. Christian Ponder won't be overwhelmed, but he has thrown some unwisely chosen passes for interceptions the past two games. The Browns are a strange team, but one thing they do well is defend the pass. Bengals QB Andy Dalton is coming off the first game this season where you really can say he had about a half-dozen bad plays, including three interceptions and a horrible intentional grounding call that cost his team a chance to win the game. Dalton beat the Browns in Week One in his debut, hitting A.J. Green with a 41-yard TD (what would end up being the game-winner) on which he caught the Browns' secondary napping. Dalton was hurt in the game and couldn't finish; the table turning is that Green is now hurt and might not play. Still, the Bengals control their fate for a wild-card spot, one game ahead of the Jets, Bills, Titans and Broncos. The Falcons are right in the thick of the NFC race, tied with the Giants at 6-4 and a game behind the Lions and Bears. These are must-win games if the Bengals and Falcons want to dance.

13. Worth noting: Philip Rivers has been terrible in fourth quarters recently, and Tim Tebow has become Mr. Fourth. So when the Broncos and Chargers meet in San Diego, can we just pick this one up when there are 15 minutes remaining? It is stunning to think that in two weeks this division has, in a way, turned upside down. The Broncos appeared the one team out of the race a 3-5, but they now are at .500 and a mere game behind the Raiders. The last-place Chargers, meanwhile, pretty much have to win this one after five straight losses or they can kiss their playoff hopes goodbye. Really, Rivers and Tebow are like comic-book opposites of each other. Rivers showed Sunday he can still sling the ball, but he has been horribly turnover-prone and has gone 0-5. Tebow is 4-1 in that stretch, has a mere two turnovers (both against the Lions) and really can't throw the ball at all from the pocket. We'll see if the trends continue. Also worth noting: The Tebow experience started this season with a near-comeback against the Chargers, falling just short in the final seconds, just as he did in his third career start against the Chargers in Week 17 last season.

14. Saving us — and NBC — from Tyler Palko vs. Charlie Batch could be the fact that Ben Roethlisberger is one tough hombre. (No comparisons here between the thumbs of Jay Cutler, Roethlisberger, Brett Favre in 2003, none of that.) The Steelers get the favorable late bye week and can continue their quest to earn the top seed in the AFC. Technically, they are a wild-card team now, as the Ravens hold the head-to-head tiebreaker after sweeping the season series. What will be interesting to see, assuming Big Ben plays, is how the design of the Steelers' offense might change. There is some talk that snaps from center and handoffs to the left (using Roethlisberger's injured right hand) could be difficult and that the team could predominantly use the shotgun and the "pistol" formation they showed briefly against the Ravens. The Chiefs' only hope against the Steelers would seem to be sending the dogs like they did against Tom Brady and hope they can short-circuit the Steelers' vertical passing game. Palko's limitations were clear in the Monday-night loss, throwing three interceptions.

15. If the Panthers can find a way to lose to the Colts, they would mathematically remain in the Andrew Lu—well, they'd still be in the hunt to earn the first pick in the draft. It has been 12 straight losses on the road for Carolina, and they will get every chance to end it against the feckless Colts. The biggest mismatch will be Cam Newton going up top to WR Steve Smith, as no Colts DB can handle him in single coverage. Short of that, it would be nice for the Panthers to get back to running the ball some more. They were effective at it in short spells against the Lions and could have used more of the ground game when the offense stalled in the third quarter and the Lions completed the comeback. On the other side, the Panthers' defense has been horrible and has started a bad trend of reviving slumping or non-existent running backs, first Chris Johnson two weeks ago and then Kevin Smith on Sunday. And guess what? M.I.A. RB Joseph Addai (hamstring) could actually play in this game. As for who will be handing off to Addai or Delone Carter or Donald Brown — head coach Jim Caldwell has not chosen between QBs Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky — well, does it really matter?

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