Only four weeks to go. Hard to believe. Let it soak in while it’s still around, people. Here’s our coverage from another appetizing Sunday of NFL football, and here’s what slipped through those cracks…
1. The Raiders and Lions have something in common. Penalties might ruin both of their seasons. Unbelievable that Detroit could make that many mistakes one week after penalties cost them a chance to win against Green Bay. And they had extra time to work on fixing their penchant for committing penalties after that Thanksgiving disaster. Jim Schwartz deserves to take heat. The Lions are just lucky that Chicago and Atlanta are losing too. Still a good chance they end up making the playoffs at 9-7.
2. The Saints are in a Super Bowl groove. And considering how close the Packers have been cutting it recently, an argument could be made that streaking New Orleans is on the same level as Green Bay. One thing’s for sure: the top two Super Bowl favorites right now are the two most recent Super Bowl winners. Drew Brees is making it look easier than ever, and they’re getting more disciplined as the season progresses. They’re a few defensive takeaways short of being the 2009 Saints.
3. Why does it feel like half the league is 7-5? Okay, specifically, 28 percent of the NFL’s 32 teams have that record. And yet only one team is 6-6. Weird.
4. When are coaches going to learn to fight their instincts and let logic do the talking when it comes time to let the opponent score? I mean, did Leslie Frazier really think his team had a better chance blocking the equivalent of an extra point than going approximately 80 yards on offense for a touchdown? With no timeouts left, you have to let Denver score on first-and-goal inside the five with less than a minute left in a tie game. I don’t care how unnatural it feels.
5. Eventually, these injuries have to catch up with the Texans. Don’t they? And now Andre Johnson has another hamstring problem. Houston might have what it takes to win a terrible division, but I just can’t see them beating smokin’ hot New England or Baltimore in January. When they’re healthy again in 2012, they might be a serious Super Bowl threat.
6. It looks as though they’ve already caught up with the Bears. What a disaster. Without Matt Forte, I don’t see them hitting the double digits in Denver next week. I’m not certain they’ll manage to win more than eight games (and they have seven right now).
7. Chicago might have no choice but to try Donovan McNabb. Rumors are swirling that they’ll consider it after that bad Caleb Hanie performance on a three-point day. Makes sense. Seriously, they aren’t winning in January with Hanie under center. They’ve got nothing to lose now, and neither does McNabb. Couldn’t hurt.
8. The future is looking bright in Tennessee. The Titans might make the playoffs as a wild-card team this year, but this season’s already been morally successful for a team that had a lot of question marks in the offseason. Rookie middle linebacker Colin McCarthy might have the ingredients for stardom. And now that Chris Johnson is on track again and Jake Locker has shown signs that he can be a quality starter, 2012 could be a big year for a young Tennessee team.
9. Prediction: Denver’s going to win the AFC West. I’m not overreacting to what happened Sunday, but that was an impressive win on the road with Von Miller out of the lineup. Now they control their own destiny, and the Raiders have Green Bay next. Hard to believe that Tim Tebow’s Broncos will probably be hosting a wild-card game on the second weekend of January.
10. Holy crap, Miami’s good! They’ve always had the talent. And they probably deserved to win against Denver and Dallas, which would make them 6-6. Right now, they look like an 8-4 team. I think Tony Sparano has probably saved his job in the last month, with Miami outscoring its opponents 139-54 while going 4-1 in a five-game stretch. On Sunday, they embarrassed one of the best road teams in football. And remember when they couldn’t win at home? That’s three straight at Sun Life.
11. The 49ers can live without Patrick Willis. Not in January, but in December. That defense is deep and the schedule’s weak enough that they’ll finish with at least 12 wins and clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC with or without the league’s best middle linebacker. Willis just has to be back for the divisional playoffs in mid-January. That means he can probably take six weeks to recuperate if need be.
12. What’s with Mark Sanchez in the fourth quarter? He looks Hanie-esque for three Qs and then becomes Montana when it matters most. He’s been Mr. Clutch for a year and a half now. Ultimately, he’ll have to find a way to apply that fourth-quarter-comeback intensity to entire games. If he can do that, he’ll be a Pro Bowler. If he can’t, his theatrics may not be enough.
13. Raheem Morris takes another hit. If current trends continue, I’m not sure Morris will be back for a fourth season in Tampa. Ultimately, a somewhat overrated 2010 season with an inflated win total might be hurting Morris this year. With a tougher schedule and guys like Josh Freeman and Mike Williams coming back to earth, the Bucs have fallen into last place in the NFC South. It looks bad, but the team was never that good. Still, Morris might pay the price.
14. The Raiders are missing too many talented players on offense. And too much speed. Darren McFadden’s absence hurt in Miami, and Carson Palmer was handcuffed without Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore. No Taiwan Jones didn’t help, either.
15. Let’s play “Where’s Waldo: Legs-don’t-bend-that-way edition”…
16. Tim Tebow’s improving as a passer. Yeah, yeah. He’s a winner. We all know that now. He’s good in clutch situations. But Tebow might have had his most efficient game as an actual passer in Minnesota. I realize that he still had only 10 complete passes, but he’s making baby steps. And his 149.3 passer rating was the highest of the day. Promising. Admit it.
17. The rise of Demaryius Thomas certainly isn’t hurting. With Thomas and Eric Decker and obviously potential comeback player of the year Willis McGahee, the offense might be good enough. Don’t blame the Broncos for their weak schedule. I think they’ll be better than many assume against Chicago and New England in the next two weeks.
18. All you need to know about St. Louis-San Francisco: The Rams didn’t cross the Niners’ 35-yard line all day. Seriously.
19. Gary Kubiak got lucky. Usually you can’t afford to make the kinds of mistakes Kubiak made Sunday against a team like Atlanta and still win, but Wade Phillips’ defense bailed the Texans out Sunday. What the hell was Kubiak thinking attempting a 54-yard field goal in the second half of a game his team was leading 10-3? Kubiak also went for it on fourth-and-one from the Atlanta 9-yard line in the fourth quarter, with that very same lead. That’s nuts. It worked, but it’s nuts.
20. Dan Orlovsky really really really doesn’t want to quarterback another 0-16 team. Jeez: 30-of-37 for 353 yards? I know New England’s defense isn’t special, but that’s enough to make you wonder how many wins Indy would have had it gone to Orlovsky earlier. I’ll bet it would be more than zero.
21. Cam Newton gets all the headlines, but Carolina’s defense won that game in Tampa. I realize that 19 points allowed isn’t overly special, but that might have been the D’s best performance of the year. A highly-criticized run defense completely shut down the dangerous LeGarrette Blount Sunday, and they held the Bucs to just four field goals before Josh Johnson hit Dezmon Briscoe for a garbage-time touchdown. Here’s another place where the future looks bright on both sides of the ball.
22. The Ravens finally set Ray Rice loose, and look what happens… 204 yards on 29 carries. Is Cam Cameron finally grasping that he needs Rice to be his best offensive player in order for the Ravens to win on a consistent basis? If so, Baltimore might be the best team in the AFC.
23. The Packers are extremely lucky to be perfect this morning. That Eli Manning pick six in the second quarter. That costly Manning fumble on the final drive of the first half. A controversial Greg Jennings touchdown that, by the letter of the law, should have been overturned. If any of those plays don’t happen or happen differently, the Giants probably win — or at least force overtime.
24. The year the Patriots ran the table, they beat the Giants 38-35. Sunday in East Rutherford: Packers 38, Giants 35.
25. Madden Curse: A squirrel is outperforming Peyton Hillis…