The First Fifteen: Week 14

Posted Dec. 06, 2011 @ 1:42 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

1. The fourth quarter (of the season) is here, and that must mean it's Tebow Time. But you'll have to wait for that. Right now, there is a big game looming in the NFC East. And though it has been a down season in the division, the Giants head to Dallas to face the Cowboys with a home playoff game on the line. Although they have lost four straight and appear to be sitting on the playoff Mendoza Line at 6-6, the Giants actually control their own fate in the division (which is code for they have to win pretty much all their remaining games). They also come into this game with more confidence following their toe-to-toe loss to the unbeaten Packers. QB Eli Manning has been consistently great this season, but he hasn't always had help. Sunday there were subtle indications that help might be on the way. The offensive line, though shuffled, played well against the Packers. The run game returned. The front four generated a lot of pressure. Yes, the back seven could use some improvement, especially facing that Cowboys passing game Sunday night. But this Giants team is dangerous now, just warning you.

2. Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett is being flambéed by the media for his kicker-icing maneuver at the end of regulation Sunday in what would become an OT loss to the Cardinals. (So much for road-field advantage; despite the crowd at University of Phoenix Stadium being decidedly pro-Cowboys, it was their third straight loss there.) But that was not Garrett's most egregious coaching decision. It was the handling of the play prior, running the clock down once the Cowboys hit the 30-yard line instead of running another play or two (with two timeouts in his pocket) and angling for better field position. Garrett similarly mishandled the end of the loss to the Patriots, giving Tom Brady way too much time to steal victory from the jaws of defeat, and Jerry Jones most certainly took notice and aired his displeasure after the game. Don't be shocked if Garrett and Jones have a little chat this week (if they have not already) that could affect the coach's strategy coming into this crucial battle. The Giants might be called out for giving Aaron Rodgers just under a minute to win it, but come on: As Tom Coughlin said, the Giants were desperately trying to score there and had to get a TD (and two-point conversion) to tie.

3. The Titans are a mystery outfit, but we know this much: Two games is a trend for Chris Johnson, and he's back in the saddle. He looks decisive and explosive again, and it's hard to say why. The Titans don't do anything spectacularly — other than Johnson, who is hitting his stride with 190 and 153 rush yards the past two games — but they have rode a formula of avoiding turnovers, protecting Matt Hasselbeck and gaining the hidden yards on special teams. They also have feisty defensive backs who should be an excellent match for the Saints and a potentially fascinating matchup for Saints TE Jimmy Graham. Two weeks ago, the Titans dropped rookie MLB Colin McCarthy in the deep middle of their Tampa-2 defense and asked him to take away Buccaneers TE Kellen Winslow in the middle of the field. Winslow was held to five relatively harmless catches a week after shredding the Packers and McCarthy stepped in front of Winslow for a game-changing fourth-quarter interception. McCarthy, who had another fantastic game Sunday against the Bills, has stepped in for Barrett Ruud and done a fantastic job aside fellow rookie LB Akeem Ayers. This will be their biggest game together yet and a whole different kind of animal, chasing Graham and RB Darren Sproles all over the place.

4. The Saints are very much an open book, a team that tries to out-sling opponents offensively early and wait for the odd big play on defense. If not for Aaron Rodgers, we might be calling Drew Brees the league's MVP. He is on pace to pass Dan Marino's all-time mark of 5,084 yards, a mark he came 15 yards short of matching in 2008, and is the first QB to hit the 4,000-yard mark through 12 games. Amazing. Interestingly, Brees has only started two career games against the Titans, and the last time was in 2007, which was not a memorable game: his only zero-TD, four-INT game at the Superdome ever. (The only team he has faced fewer times in his career? Why the Saints, of course, with one matchup when he was a Charger.) But this game is in Nashville, and Brees has six interceptions in his last three outdoor games this season. They can clinch the NFC South with a win and a Falcons loss, but this might be the classic trap game, with the white-hot Saints coming off wins over the Falcons, Giants and Lions perhaps overlooking the sneaky-good Titans on their field. Except that they appear to have the attention of Saints head coach Sean Payton. "There are two things that you would look at immediately: It's a team that's quietly gone under the radar and is playing good football, and I think in league circles we would recognize it, look at the tape and see that these guys have won a lot of football games and there's been a formula, and certainly (Titans head coach) Mike (Munchak) has certainly embraced being steady on defense and having that balance offensively. ... (We're) transitioning to the cleats (grass field), to the elements (outdoors), to a different team in the AFC, a team that's playing well."

5. The Packers can breathe. They survived the ringer, one of the few tests remaining and now they really are on pace to finish the regular season 16-0 with the Raiders on deck. Right? Well, this is a leap of faith, but don't assume a walk to victory. Yes, Aaron Rodgers probably can spin the Raiders' secondary around on his finger if he wants to, but the Raiders' defensive line is another story. Sunday against the Dolphins was not a great game for the unit, and Richard Seymour was tossed from the game for tossing a punch, but the Packers had trouble blocking a similarly talented Giants front four with that group applying a heavy rush without the aid of a lot of blitzing. Don't be shocked if the game gets a little unruly, and like Saints-Titans, you also have the situation of unfamiliarity. The Raiders and Packers have not met since 2007, when Ryan Grant and Brett Favre (who might be a Bear?) torched Lane Kiffin's Raiders, who were quarterbacked by Josh McCown (who is a Bear), in a 38-7 game. So yeah, things have changed a bit.

6. The Raiders looked tired Sunday and maybe distracted from the Rolando McClain arrest. They faced a buzzsaw of a Dolphins team and now find themselves tied with the Mighty Tebows for first place in the West. And you know who the public is backing in that race. Maybe the pressure is getting to Hue Jackson's team; or maybe it's health, too. The run game has stalled as Michael Bush's workload (84 carries in the three games prior to the Dolphins game) has increased. The Dolphins held them to 46 rushing yards on 14 carries a week after the Bears held them to 73 rushing yards on 27 carries. But Sunday could represent the return of RB Darren McFadden, and he could be a difference maker. The Packers have lived dangerously all season with a defense that ranks 29th in yards per rush allowed and 31st in yards per pass allowed. At some point, it will catch up to them. The Raiders are still not completely healthy at wideout, but the Packers could be without CB Charles Woodson (concussion) against his old team. It would be the upset of the century, but don't be shocked if the Raiders give the Packers a serious run, leading to questions about the vulnerability of this team in the postseason.

7. The Bengals have been a terrific story this season, but you have to wonder whether they are toast. Marvin Lewis has a tricky balancing act here, not wanting to be too tough on his young squad, which was crushed by the Steelers for their third loss in four games, but also keeping the whip tightly gripped as a playoff bid hangs in the balance. His offense, which has slipped to the bottom half of the league in points and yards, now must face another huge challenge. The Texans feature the second-ranked (in points and yards allowed) defense in the NFL and one that completely befuddled Matt Ryan at times Sunday. Andy Dalton's play has leveled off a bit lately, and Sunday against the Steelers he appeared too dialed in on fellow rookie A.J. Green at times. And guess who is likely to cover Green? Old friend CB Johnathan Joseph, who has been a terrific signing for the Texans after defecting from the Bengals in the offseason. Of course, Green is a rookie; he doesn't know Joseph from Adam.

8. The Texans know they are in uncharted waters. They know they have never made the playoffs. They know they have tied their franchise's single-season win record with nine. They know that a Titans loss this week and a win over the Bengals gives them their first division crown. And they also know how unlikely a postseason run would be with T.J. Yates, the newest Lone Star star. Yates isn't at Tim Tebow levels of hype yet, and even getting there would be quite the story. But if he can lead this team into the postseason and make some hay, it would be just as outstanding as it would unlikely. And there's a terrific little irony going on with him: In Yates' first start, the Texans called for a number of passes downfield. Coming out of North Carolina (he's the first Tar Heels QB to start a game in the NFL, by the way), the knock on Yates was his accuracy past 15 yards. But he appeared at least far more willing to look downfield than the man he replaced, Matt Leinart, who was a checkdown specialist in his brief relief appearance before getting hurt. Yates hit Andre Johnson on a gorgeous 50-yard throw, another 22-yarder downfield and threw a 30-yard strike that hit Johnson on the hands 30 yards from the line of scrimmage. Of course, Yates was saved by a penalty on a pick-six and he could be facing the Bengals without Johnson, who now has two tender hamstrings. If he wins Sunday without him, Yates would deserve a little of that Tebow-esque love.

9. Thursday football. Woot. Browns-Steelers. The Browns were really awful Sunday, and stone-faced head coach Pat Shurmur looked really beaten down for the first time this season. It was bad. The Steelers, meanwhile, took the Bengals to the woodshed. All signs point to Blowout City at Heinz Field. The Browns' defense has kept the team close in some games this season, but Sunday's 290-yard allowance on the ground to the Ravens proved that this is far from a top-shelf group. Don't get fooled into thinking the Browns are a great pass-defending team, as their No. 1 ranking in that department and Joe Flacco's 10 complete passes Sunday might suggest. Really, teams have had such success running the ball on them this season (31st in rush yards allowed) that most quarterbacks have barely had to strain their arms. Look for the Steelers to try to crank up the run in this game, too, and they can clinch a playoff spot by winning and getting outside help.

10. The Dolphins and Eagles are identical in record at 4-8, but you would be hard-pressed to find two teams heading in more opposite directions. On Halloween, the Dolphins lost a game they led at the Giants to fall to 0-7 and the Eagles roasted the Cowboys 34-7 and appeared to be making their move at 3-4 after slow-playing it to start the season. A few funny things happened along the way. The Dolphins miraculously have won four of five games and the Eagles, in equally stunning fashion, have dropped four of five. The Dolphins are having fun but probably still won't save their coach's job. The Eagles look absolutely miserable right now, like they want this nightmare to end, and their coach probably will keep his job. What in the world is going on here? Sunday's matchup in Miami has to have the Dolphins as the favorite based on their recent play, even if Michael Vick (ribs) returns to the lineup as expected. Matt Moore has been terrific for the Dolphins and it would be the seventh time in his past 16 NFL starts dating back to 2009 season, when he was with Carolina, that the former undrafted free agent has faced a No. 1 overall pick at quarterback (including Eli Manning three times) if Vick plays.

11. If the Panthers are this year's version of the 2010 Lions — losers of 10 of 12 to start the season before winning their final four games — then the Falcons might be in trouble Sunday. The Falcons came into Week 13 with the sixth-ranked run defense, but it was ground up a bit in the second half by the Texans, who ran for 106 yards after halftime and the game-winning TD. Overall, the Falcons just looked sloppy and saw some of their best players fall flat. Now, the Panthers are not a perfect outfit, by any means, full of defensive and special-teams holes. But Cam Newton showed Sunday against the Bucs that he can take over a game, and you know that throwing a late pick against the Falcons (his favorite team growing up) in Atlanta (his hometown, with many friends and family in attendance) had to hurt. Like his pitch-and-catch partner, Steve Smith, Newton has a good memory and failure motivate them both equally. The Panthers have a balanced passing and running attack these days and will leave nothing in the cupboard as they try to upset the teetering Falcons as they fight for a playoff spot. After all, look at the teams the Lions beat down the stretch last season: the Packers (eventual Super Bowl champs), the Bucs (a 10-6 team that fell one game short of the playoffs) in Tampa, the Dolphins (knocking them out of the playoffs) in Miami, and the Vikings. A Panthers victory Sunday would kick-start their final quartet, which is equally as daunting with games against the Falcons, Texans, Bucs and Saints.

12. The Jaguars are Grim Reapers these days. Two weeks ago, they played the Texans and knocked out Matt Leinart before his season ever really began. The next day, the coach was hacked and the team was sold. Then Monday, they lost to the Chargers, who might lose their own coach at season's end. And Sunday, they face the flagging Buccaneers, whose ship might be sinking with ankle-deep water rising quickly around Raheem Morris. The NFL's youngest head coach did not mince words on the sidelines with DT Brian Price, sending him home during the game, or with the media afterwards, selecting some choice words when being asked if he disciplined Price. Josh Freeman's gun-accident thumb injury and his major step backwards this season, development-wise, have led some people to suggest that the franchise put too much in his hands this season, and not just on the field. Whether he plays Sunday is not known now, but Freeman said Monday he's optimistic he'll play against the Jags. As for their quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, it hasn't been the banner rookie season he hoped. But a few big games from him down the stretch and interim head coach Mel Tucker (0-1 after Monday's home thrashing) might be able to keep this job for next season.

13. OK, now it's Tebow Time. Sorry you had to wait this long, but Tebow fans are used to waiting three quarters before he sprinkles his magic dust, so it's par for the course. He's in an ideal situation, returning home against the Bears, who have a real QB doozy on their hands with Caleb Hanie fluttering and rumors of Donovan McNabb and Brett Favre floating around Chicago. Whether they are true or not is almost immaterial; clearly, there is little trust in Jay Cutler's replacement at this point, and it would be tough to imagine the Bears being dynamic offensively without RB Matt Forté, who is out with a sprained MCL. You have to think this is one the Bears' defense and special teams must rescue, and that would mean (in part, anyway) stopping Tebow, for four quarters. Here's Bears head coach Lovie Smith on the Wonder Boy: "This is option football. Our defense is based on (stopping) sound, option principles. But we don't have a lot of our option responsibilities ironed out each week. So this is forcing a lot of teams in the league to be sound in all of those things. But our defense is set up to play this type of offense. They have a unique athlete at quarterback who can really run over you and throw the ball. He poses a lot of different problems. There will be some challenges with this offense."

14. Perhaps inspired by Tebow, we might see some option/Wildcat in Jets-Chiefs. Jets RB Shonn Greene ran some Sunday against the Redskins — Rex Ryan's idea, he said — and scored a nine-yard TD with it. Javier Arenas and Jerheme Urban have been the point men for the Chiefs on the direct snap stuff this season, and they have been more willing to break it out with Matt Cassel out and Tyler Palko in. This is a game that Jets QB Mark Sanchez needs to show he can play four good quarters. He needs the confidence. Sanchez had a fairly clean sheet against the Redskins with his first turnover-free game since Week Six and back-to-back sack-free games after being taken down a combined eight times in losses to the Patriots and Broncos. But beware of the Chiefs' suddenly emerging pass rush. After nine sacks in the first nine games, Romeo Crennel's group has rattled off 11 takedowns the past three, including seven Sunday against the Bears. Go back and watch the first half of the loss to the Patriots in Week 11, and you'll see an aggressive front that had Tom Brady rattled. The Jets would be wise to use extra pass protectors and give their quarterback a chance to throw.

15. The final game of the week is not a doozy. We could be treated to a "Manic Monday" matchup of Tarvaris Jackson vs. Tom Brandstater. The latter is who the Rams are down to with Sam Bradford dealing with a high ankle sprain and A.J. Feeley having suffered a broken thumb. With Feeley leading the charge Sunday against the 49ers, the Rams were blanked, held to 157 yards of offense and never moved the ball past the San Fran 35-yard line. Gack. The Seahawks, meanwhile, earned a nice little victory last Thursday over the 4-8 Eagles, and Pete Carroll said this week that Jackson is as healthy has he has been since suffering a pectoral injury in Week Five. On top of that, Marshawn Lynch is entering Beast Mode again and he's facing a Rams defense that has allowed four teams to rush for more than 196 yards this season, including career-best games for Beanie Wells and DeMarco Murray, the eighth- and 11th-leading rushers in the NFL. Lynch ranks 13th. Fantasy owners alert: Lynch might have a decent game Monday night. Is that priceless lineup advice or what?