Articles By Nathan Rush
When the once-proud Indianapolis Colts staggered to an 0–13 start this season, many assumed heads would roll this offseason.
Most casual observers pointed to head coach Jim Caldwell, who had been Tony Dungy’s hand-picked successor when the man who led with Quiet Strength retired following the 2008 campaign.
But for those with ears to the street, a growing rumbling for longtime Vice Chairman Bill Polian and his son, Vice President and General Manager Chris Polian, to be shown the door could be heard loud and clear.
Even a 2–1 finish to the season and a final 2–14 mark could not save the Polians, who were fired by owner and CEO Jim Irsay following a Week 17 loss to Jacksonville — a defeat that clinched the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
“It was a very tough decision for me,” said Irsay. “I had a chance to express to them, and Bill in particular how hard it was and the appreciation the franchise has for all that has been done. Obviously, he and I go back 30 years. So this is difficult. This is the tough part of this business.”
Undeniably one of the greatest architects in the history of the NFL, Bill Polian was named the league’s Executive of the Year six times (1988, ’91, ’95, ’96, ’99 and 2009). Most notably, Polian built the Buffalo Bills’ roster — drafting defensive end Bruce Smith and acquiring USFL quarterback Jim Kelly — that went to four straight Super Bowls from 1990-93. From there, he whipped the expansion Carolina Panthers into shape, as the team made the NFC title game in only its second season of existence.
Polian arrived in Indianapolis in 1998 and his first draft choice was a young gun out of Tennessee named Peyton Manning, who went No. 1 overall ahead of Washington State’s Ryan Leaf, who went No. 2.
In 14 seasons, the Polian-designed Colts made the playoffs 11 times and went to the Super Bowl twice — hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy following Super Bowl XLIV just five seasons ago.
“I would like to thank Jim Irsay and the Irsay family for all they have done for me over the past 14 years,” Bill Polian said in a statement released after the news broke Tuesday.
“I’m grateful for all the support the fans have shown us in good times and bad. Indianapolis has been a wonderful place to live and work. Most of all I would like to thank the players, coaches and staff who have played the pivotal role in this magnificent journey. I will miss them all.”
Bill’s son, Chris, also joined the Colts in 1998 as the Director of Pro Scouting before rising through the ranks to become the team’s Vice President and General Manager, posts he served — with decidedly mixed review — over the past four seasons.
With the No. 1 pick in the draft — which most speculate will be used on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck — Irsay has decided to make a clean break with a new regime in the front office, which came as painful news to the player most associated with Bill Polian.
“I was surprised, shocked, disappointed,” Manning told the Indianapolis Star. “I don’t want to speak for Bill, but I did meet with him and he is (shocked) as well. It’s a sad day and it’s the worst part about this business. I’m sorry that it went down this way. I always thought Bill and I might retire around the same time. You kind of hoped for that fairytale ending, after winning a Super Bowl.”
After watching helplessly from the sideline in the wake of multiple neck surgeries, Manning was once again powerless as the only personnel man he’s ever known was let go.
Now, the question is: Will Manning be the next big name to exit Indy?
Matt Flynn, QB, Packers
Step aside Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre and Bart Starr, there’s a new record-breaking quarterback in Titletown. A pending free agent, Flynn completed 31-of-44 passes for a team-record 480 yards, a club-record six TDs and one INT in what was likely his last regular season game with the Packers, a 45–41 shootout victory over the NFC North rival Lions. “It’s very humbling,” said Flynn, following his breakout performance at Lambeau Field. “Just think of all the great quarterbacks that have come through here.”
Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
Needing a win to secure the AFC North crown, as well as the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the AFC Playoffs — as opposed to the No. 5 seed and a Wild Card matchup with a loss — Baltimore rode Rice to a 24–16 win at Cincinnati. The 5'8", 212-pounder showed off both power and speed, with 24 carries for 191 yards (8.0 ypc) and two TDs — a 70-yard sprint to start the scoreboard festivities and a 51-yard fourth-quarter scamper to seal the victory.
Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
The G-Men were on Cruz control during their 31–14 must-win over the Cowboys, in a playoff play-in game for the NFC East division title. The second-year Minuteman out of UMass capped off the most unlikely of years with a six-catch, 178-yard effort highlighted by a 74-yard TD. After entering the season with zero career receptions, Cruz has 82 grabs for 1,536 yards (18.7 ypc) and nine TDs this season, becoming Eli Manning’s go-to receiver along the way.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints
Someone has to catch all those Drew Brees bombs; and during a 45–17 win over Carolina, it was Graham, who hauled in eight receptions for 97 yards and one TD, and partner in crime Marques Colston, who had seven catches for 145 yards and two TDs. The 6'6", 260-pound Graham, who played basketball at Miami (Fla.), finished the season with 99 catches for a team tight end record 1,310 yards and 11 TDs.
Jared Allen, DE, Vikings
Minnesota’s hardest hustler didn’t slow down in a meaningless 17–13 loss to Chicago in the season finale. Allen posted a season-high 3.5 sacks — his sixth multi-sack game of the year — giving him 22 sacks this season, 0.5-sack shy of the NFL single-season record set by Michael Strahan in 2001. In eight seasons, Allen has recorded 105 sacks and 26 forced fumbles, earning four trips to the Pro Bowl.
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 17, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Jets (8-7) at Dolphins (5-10)
After all that boasting from Rex Ryan, the Jets must beat the Fins, plus hope for losses from the Bengals and Titans, as well as the Raiders or Broncos, just to punch their ticket to the postseason as a Wild Card berth.
Jets by 1
Bills (6-9) at Patriots (12-3)
Tom Brady is being overshadowed by Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees; but don’t forget about the Pats QB when the weather gets cold.
Patriots by 11
Titans (8-7) at Texans (10-5)
Houston has a problem following back-to-back losses to the Panthers and Colts. Tennessee is hoping for a miraculous postseason berth; the Titans must win, the Bengals must lose and the other dominoes must fall just right.
Titans by 2
Colts (2-13) at Jaguars (4-11)
Easy there, Indy. Slow down. Fool one team, shame on the NFL; fool two teams, shame on you; fool three teams and blow your chance to draft Peyton Manning’s heir apparent, Stanford signal-caller Andrew Luck, at No. 1 overall.
Jaguars by 2
Redskins (5-10) at Eagles (7-8)
An 8–8 season is not what Andy Reid had in mind, but a 4–0 “fourth quarter” of the season may just save the big man’s job.
Eagles by 8
Bears (7-8) at Vikings (3-12)
It’s a race to the bottom in the NFC North — which is the black-and-blue division again, after high-profile, season-ending injuries to Adrian Peterson, Jay Cutler and Matt Forte.
Bears by 2
Panthers (6-9) at Saints (12-3)
Cam Newton’s rookie season is not over and neither is Drew Brees’ record-breaking year. These two should put on an aerial show.
Saints by 7
49ers (12-3) at Rams (2-13)
St. Loser is still in contention for the No. 1 pick. San Fran will clinch a first-round bye with a win or a loss by New Orleans.
49ers by 9
Lions (10-5) at Packers (14-1)
Green Bay better rest its starters, because odds are Ndamukong Suh and Detroit’s dirty defense are angry following their Turkey Day meltdown.
Packers by 5
Ravens (11-4) at Bengals (9-6)
A Baltimore win earns Ray Lewis and Co. the AFC North title, while also securing a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game. Meanwhile, Cincy controls its own destiny and is in must-win mode. But the Bengals could still make the playoffs with a loss — if both the Jets plus either the Broncos or Raiders lose.
Bengals by 1
Steelers (11-4) at Browns (4-11)
The health of the battle-tested Steelers — Big Ben in particular — heading into the playoffs is more important than a win at Cleveland.
Steelers by 6
Chiefs (6-9) at Broncos (8-7)
The Broncos will stampede into the playoffs with a win over Denver’s opening day starter and Kansas City’s current leader Kyle Orton. Otherwise, Tim Tebow will need the Al Davis-inspired Raiders to lose.
Broncos by 3
Seahawks (7-8) at Cardinals (7-8)
A birdfight between two also-rans building momentum for next season. What else is on?
Cardinals by 1
Chargers (7-8) at Raiders (8-7)
Al Davis’ spirit looms large over the Black Hole as coach Hue Jackson predicts the Raiders will “find a way” to make the playoffs in honor of their owner, who passed away earlier this year. A win plus a Denver loss or tie; or a win plus a loss by both the Bengals and Titans; or a win plus a Bengals loss and Jets win will do the trick. Either way, Oakland must win.
Raiders by 2
Buccaneers (4-11) at Falcons (9-6)
The Young Bucs look to lose their 10th straight; the Dirty Birds will help them do just that.
Falcons by 12
Cowboys (8-7) at Giants (8-7)
This Sunday night fight is a winner-take-all playoff play-in for the NFC East title belt. After injuring his throwing hand in a throwaway loss to the Eagles, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo must avoid a hard-hitting Big Blue Wrecking Crew pass rush led by sack artists Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.
Giants by 4
Last week: 11-5 // Season: 162-78
‘Tis the season for year-end awards in the NFL. This year, there are more players deserving of recognition than trophies to hand out. These are the select few Athlon Sports believes to be award-worthy:
Most Valuable Player
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
There’s no need for a “Discount Double-Check” on this one; Rodgers has posted historically efficient and prolific stats — completing 68.3 percent of his passes for a career-high 4,643 yards, a career-best 45 TDs and a career-low six INTs for a 122.5 passer rating, which if maintained, would break Peyton Manning’s single-season record of 121.1 in 2004. The Super Bowl XLV MVP has also led the Packers to a 14–1 record.
Offensive Player of the Year
Drew Brees, QB, Saints
The leader of the Big Easy band has been putting on a show this year. With one more gig on the regular season schedule, Brees has already broken Dan Marino’s single-season passing yards record — throwing for 5,087 yards, 41 TDs and 13 INTs.
Defensive Player of the Year
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
In just his second season, JPP has become one of the most-feared pass-rushers and playmakers in the NFL. The 6'5", 278-pound athletic freak has 81 tackles, 15.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, one safety and one block of a potential game-winning field goal.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
The Heisman Trophy-winning BCS national champion out of Auburn has taken the NFL by storm since going No. 1 overall in the draft — passing for 3,893 yards, 20 TDs and 16 INTs, and rushing for 674 yards and 14 TDs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals
Denver edge-rusher Von Miller also deserves consideration. But Peterson takes the prize after posting 60 tackles, two INTs, one sack and an NFL record-tying four punt return TDs — including a walk-off game-winner.
Comeback Player of the Year
Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
The oft-injured signal-caller threw for 4,518 yards, 36 TDs and 14 INTs, while leading the Lions to their first playoff berth since 1999 — starting 15 games, compared to the 13 starts he totaled over his first two seasons.
Coach of the Year
Jim Harbaugh, 49ers
Postgame handshake controversy and Thanksgiving loss to older bro, John, aside, Harbaugh’s first year with the 49ers has been solid gold. San Francisco is 12–3 this year — its first winning season since 2002.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
Rodgers likely tied a bow on this year’s MVP award during a 35–21 victory over the Bears on Christmas night. The 184th meeting of the NFL’s oldest rivals was the only game in town on Sunday, and the Super Bowl XLV MVP made the most of his time with the spotlight to himself — completing 21-of-29 passes for 283 yards, a career-best five TDs and zero INTs in front of the 300th consecutive sellout at Lambeau Field. The victory locked up homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and eliminated Chicago from postseason contention.
Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts
In what may have been his final game as a member of the Colts at Lucas Oil Field, Wayne had eight catches for 106 yards — only his third 100-yard game of a disappointing season — and the game-winning one-yard TD from Dan Orlovsky with 19 seconds remaining in a 19–16 upset win over the AFC South champion Texans on Thursday night. In the final year of his contract, the 11th-year veteran has snagged two of his four TD catches in Indy’s two straight wins following an 0–13 start this season.
Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots
While Wayne continues to wait for a new deal, Mayo inked a five-year, $50-million contract prior to playing arguably his best game of the season. The 2008 Defensive Rookie of the Year and All-Pro middle linebacker had a season-high 13 tackles and a career-best two sacks as the Patriots rallied from a 17–0 halftime deficit to defeat the AFC East rival Dolphins, 27–24. New England has now won seven consecutive games and appears to be a contender once again coming down the stretch.
David Akers, K, 49ers
The 37-year-old veteran kicker hit four FGs — from 53, 29, 44 and 39 yards, respectively — including the go-ahead boot with 2:57 left in a 19–17 defensive win at Seattle. In the process, the 13th-year man, who signed as a free-agent from Philadelphia this offseason, set an NFL record with his 42nd made FG of the season. With one game remaining, Akers is 42-of-49 (85.7 percent) on FGs, with a long of 55 yards, and 30-of-30 on PATs, accounting for a career-best and league-leading 156 points — which is 18 points ahead of the second-best scorer, Saints kicker John Kasay (138).
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 16, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Texans (10-4) at Colts (1-13)
In Week 1, Houston handed Indianapolis its first of 13 consecutive losses, with a 34–7 blowout. But the Colts ride into this Thursday nighter fresh off their first victory, while the Texans had their seven-game win streak snapped.
Texans by 6
Broncos (8-6) at Bills (5-9)
Tim Tebow goes on the road again, where the frequent-flying Superman is a perfect 5–0 — with eight passing TDs and zero INTs.
Broncos by 4
Dolphins (5-9) at Patriots (11-3)
Miami lost to New England, 38–24, in Week 1; this may be déja vu all over again for the Fins.
Patriots by 10
Browns (4-10) at Ravens (10-4)
Baltimore must bounce back after a 34–14 loss at San Diego on Sunday night. A visit from the Browns — a rival the Ravens beat 24–10 in Week 13 — will cure what ails Ray Lewis.
Ravens by 9
Raiders (7-7) at Chiefs (6-8)
Kansas City interim coach Romeo Crennel is 1–0 after knocking off the Packers. But the likeable defensive guru needs to win out if he hopes to remain the head Chief at Arrowhead.
Chiefs by 1
Vikings (2-12) at Redskins (5-9)
Adrian Peterson is toughing it out for his fantasy team owners; but he might want to rest his left ankle for his real team owner Zygi Wilf.
Redskins by 4
Cardinals (7-7) at Bengals (8-6)
Two top rookies — Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson and Cincy wideout A.J. Green — go toe-to-toe in a matchup of future Pro Bowlers.
Bengals by 3
Rams (2-12) at Steelers (10-4)
St. Loser aims to match its season-opening, season-long six-game losing streak this week.
Steelers by 11
Buccaneers (4-10) at Panthers (5-9)
Three weeks ago, Cam Newton marched to Tampa Bay and handed the Bucs a 38–19 loss. Get ready for the rookie’s first season sweep.
Panthers by 9
Giants (7-7) at Jets (8-6)
The battle of the Big Apple is technically an “away” game for the Giants, even though it will be played in the same stadium Big Blue plays their home games in. This is a must-win for both of East Rutherford, New Jersey’s teams.
Giants by 2
Jaguars (4-10) at Titans (7-7)
Tennessee gave Indianapolis its first win of the season; the Titans need to avenge that defeat plus their 16–14 Week 1 loss at Jacksonville.
Titans by 8
Chargers (7-7) at Lions (9-5)
The Bolts are surging in December once again, shocking the league with a three-game win streak after a six-game slide earlier this year.
Lions by 2
Eagles (6-8) at Cowboys (8-6)
Big D can win and get in (with a Giants loss). A Boys loss (and G-Men win) would result in a playoff play-in next week in the season finale.
Cowboys by 1
49ers (11-3) at Seahawks (7-7)
Before Niners boss Jim Harbaugh had his postgame handshake issues with the Lions’ Jim Schwartz, the former Stanford coach was asked “What’s your deal?” at midfield after upsetting then-USC coach Pete Carroll. These two bring a collegiate energy to an NFC West rivalry.
49ers by 5
Bears (7-7) at Packers (13-1)
The only Christmas Sunday game on the NFL schedule is the league’s oldest rivalry — but not necessarily this season’s best matchup. The 184th meeting of the Bears and Packers is a rematch of a Week 3 contest Green Bay won 27–17 against a Chicago club that had a healthy Jay Cutler. Following their first loss of the year, the Packers will be eager to Lambeau Leap as many times as possible on Xmas.
Packers by 11
Falcons (9-5) at Saints (11-3)
Atlanta coach Mike Smith was widely criticized by Monday morning, armchair quarterbacks after going for it, and subsequently failing to convert, on 4th-and-1 in overtime of a 26–23 loss to New Orleans in Week 10. Since then, the Falcons are 4–1; but the Saints are 4–0.
Saints by 7
Last week: 9-7 // Season: 151-73
Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
No amount of Tebowing could stop Brady and the Patriots during a 41–23 statement road win over the Broncos. The three-time Super Bowl champ completed 23-of-34 passes for 320 yards, two TDs and zero INTs, while doing his best Tim Tebow impression on a goal line QB sneak TD run. Following Brady’s first rushing score of the season, the Pats’ emotional leader let out a little steam with a powerful spike and primal scream to celebrate the six points.
Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions
Megatron was in top form, with nine catches for 214 yards (23.8 ypc) and two trips to the end zone during a 28–27 victory at Oakland. Johnson’s second TD grab of the day was a six-yard strike that capped a 98-yard drive to give the Lions — who trailed by 13 points in the fourth — the lead with 39 seconds remaining. After a nail-biting finish, in which Ndamukong Suh blocked a potential 65-yard game-winning FG, Detroit earned yet another comeback win.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles
Just when it seemed as if the “Dream Team” had been put to sleep, Philly has stormed back into the playoff picture, with a mathematical shot at the NFC East title with two games left. McCoy had 18 carries for 102 yards and three TDs in a 45–19 rout of the Jets. In the process, “Shady” surpassed Hall of Fame running back Steve Van Buren for the Eagles’ single-season rushing and total TD records. McCoy now has 16 TDs on the ground and 19 total this year.
Reggie Bush, RB, Dolphins
The Fins feature back had 25 carries for a career-high 203 yards and a season-long 76-yard TD sprint to paydirt — after which Bush was penalized for excessive celebration for sliding into the snow in the back of the end zone — during a 30–23 win at Buffalo. The effort was Bush’s third straight 100-yard game; the sixth-year back out of USC left New Orleans as a free-agent to sign with Miami, where he has posted a career-high 973 yards and six TDs.
John Abraham, DE, Falcons
Atlanta’s top pass rusher was at his strip-sacking best during a 41–14 blowout of Jacksonville on Thursday night. Abraham recorded five tackles, a season-high 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles of Jaguars rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who appeared to be in over his head playing against the terrorizing 6'4", 263-pound 12th-year veteran sack artist with four Pro Bowl selections already under his belt.
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 15, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Jaguars (4-9) at Falcons (8-5)
The Dirty Birds have not been great closers, but they have won the games they were expected to win at home — with only defeats to the Packers and Saints (in overtime) in the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome this season.
Falcons by 7
Cowboys (7-6) at Buccaneers (4-9)
The first Saturday night game of the season pits two teams licking their wounds. The Boys have lost back-to-back games on painful missed potential game-winning field goals — both of which came after timeouts that “iced” kicker Dan Bailey. The Bucs have simply lost seven straight games and are desperate to win.
Cowboys by 7
Bengals (7-6) at Rams (2-11)
St. Louis is the Gateway to the second-Worst team in the NFL (and No. 2 pick in the draft); Cincy is still eyeing a longshot playoff berth.
Bengals by 6
Dolphins (4-9) at Bills (5-8)
Miami crushed Buffalo, 35–8, in Week 11. That was the Bills’ third straight loss in a streak that has since grown to six consecutive defeats.
Bills by 1
Titans (7-6) at Colts (0-13)
Rookie Jake Locker could make his first start of the season, following a left calf injury to old man Matt Hasselbeck. But Tennessee is just hoping to avoid handing Indy its first win of the year. The Titans still have an outside shot at a Wild Card berth, but must win their last three.
Titans by 13
Redskins (4-9) at Giants (7-6)
Comeback king of New York, Eli Manning, will be looking to avenge a 28–14 Week 1 loss at Washington when the G-Men host the Skins.
Giants by 7
Saints (10-3) at Vikings (2-11)
Drew Brees loves playing indoors. N’Awlins is 3–2 in the elements this season and 7–1 under a roof in a temperature-controlled dome.
Saints by 10
Packers (13-0) at Chiefs (5-8)
Expect to hear plenty of great quotes from Vince Lombardi and Hank Stram prior to this rematch of Super Bowl I, which the Packers won 35–10 on Jan. 15, 1967 in Los Angeles.
Packers by 16
Panthers (4-9) at Texans (10-3)
Cam Newton hits Houston looking to win his third straight road game, after taking victories in Indy and Tampa Bay in Weeks 12 and 13.
Texans by 2
Seahawks (6-7) at Bears (7-6)
Chicago has gone 0–3 since Jay Cutler’s thumb injury; the Hawks are 4–1 the past five weeks.
Bears by 2
Lions (8-5) at Raiders (7-6)
Ndamukong Suh returns just in time to show the Black Hole what a real scary, dirty player looks and acts like on and off the field.
Raiders by 1
Jets (8-5) at Eagles (5-8)
This meeting would have been a quote-board bonanza earlier this season. As it stands, Philly’s only role is that of Jets spoiler.
Eagles by 2
Browns (4-9) at Cardinals (6-7)
Phoenix is rising, having won five of its last six games following a 1–6 start to the season.
Cardinals by 5
Patriots (10-3) at Broncos (8-5)
Tom Brady and Tim Tebow are carrying a combined 10–0 record, with 18 TDs and two INTs over the past five weeks. This week, however, either Tom or Tim Terrific will suffer a loss.
Patriots by 4
Ravens (10-3) at Chargers (6-7)
San Diego needs to win out and have Denver and Oakland fall apart in order to contend for the AFC West title. Meanwhile, Baltimore is jockeying for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Both teams badly need this win.
Ravens by 1
Steelers (10-3) at 49ers (10-3)
Both of Pittsburgh’s top two offensive players — quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and center Maurkice Pouncey — have been diagnosed with high-ankle sprains and are questionable heading into this Monday night matchup with the fifth-ranked overall defense (305.1 ypg) and No. 1 rush defense (70.5 ypg). The Niners could use a win, however, having lost two of their last three after a 9–1 start to the season.
Steelers by 1
Last week: 11-5 // Season: 144-64
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
The 6'5", 278-pound second-year end out of South Florida has drawn comparisons to the original “Freak,” Jevon Kearse; and JPP showed just what an unbelievable athlete he is during New York’s 37–34 win over Dallas on Sunday night at Jerry’s House. Pierre-Paul’s wingspan seemingly stretched from sideline-to-sideline, as the one-man Big Blue Wrecking Crew recorded eight tackles, two sacks — including one safety — one forced fumble and a blocked kick on the potential game-tying field goal. After notching 4.5 sacks as a rookie, JPP has 12.5 through 13 games during what is likely the first of many Pro Bowl seasons for the 22-year-old.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
Another incredible physical specimen in his second season, the “Gronk” had six catches for a career-high 160 yards and two record-breaking TD grabs during a 34–27 win at Washington. In the process, the 6'6", 265-pounder out of Arizona set the all-time single-season record for TD catches by a tight end. Gronkowski’s 14th and 15th TDs — an 11-yard strike and 37-yard highlight run — moved Tom Brady’s go-to guy past Antonio Gates (2004) and Vernon Davis (2009), who each hauled in 13 TDs.
Terrell Suggs, LB, Ravens
The Colts’ return to Baltimore — where they played from 1953-83 — was not quite the homecoming the horseshoes were hoping for. The Ravens sent the league’s lone remaining winless team back to Indianapolis in impressive fashion during the 24–10 contest. Suggs led the way with three sacks and three forced fumbles, as the Ravens defense forced six Colts punts, while holding Indy to just three points through three quarters. Over the past three weeks, Suggs has recorded seven sacks and four forced fumbles, giving him 13.0 sacks and six forced fumbles this season.
Matt Prater, K, Broncos
Say whatever you want about Tim Tebow or the Denver defense, but the latest Broncos miracle was a result of the golden right foot of Prater — who bombed a career-long and game-tying 59-yard field goal with three seconds remaining in regulation before splitting the uprights on a 51-yard field goal in overtime to seal a 13–10 win over the Bears. After entering their Week 6 bye with a 1–4 record, the Broncos have won seven of their last eight, including six straight, and are currently sitting alone in first place of the AFC West division standings.
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 14, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Browns (4-8) at Steelers (9-3)
Cleveland’s Colt McCoy and Peyton Hillis limp into Blitz-burgh on short rest for this Thursday night AFC North showdown. These two teams are headed in opposite directions. The Browns are 1–5 over their last six games; the Steelers are 7–1 over their last eight contests.
Steelers by 13
Patriots (9-3) at Redskins (4-8)
The last time these two teams played, New England “ran up the score” for a 52–7 win over Washington in 2007. And judging by the way the Patriots and Redskins are playing, this year’s results might not be much better.
Patriots by 11
Chiefs (5-7) at Jets (7-5)
It’s now or never for Rex Ryan’s crew. If the Jets don’t fire up their engines, they won’t be flying into the postseason this year.
Jets by 6
Texans (9-3) at Bengals (7-5)
Houston is riding a six-game winning streak, while Cincinnati has lost three of its last four. But don’t let the trends fool you, the Bengals can pounce on the banged-up Texans.
Bengals by 2
Colts (0-12) at Ravens (9-3)
The Colts ran from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984. This year’s horseshoe homecoming will make Maryland natives thankful they have a Super Bowl contender to cheer for rather than a winless roster sans Peyton Manning.
Ravens by 15
Falcons (7-5) at Panthers (4-8)
Atlanta won 31–17 over Carolina in Week 6. But the Panthers have won two straight and look to spoil the Dirty Birds’ Wild Card hopes.
Falcons by 2
Buccaneers (4-8) at Jaguars (3-9)
It’s been a down year for Florida football — both in the NFL and at the collegiate level. This game will only remind fans of that sad fact.
Buccaneers by 1
Saints (9-3) at Titans (7-5)
Drew Brees has been in MVP form over the past three weeks — completing 68.4 percent of his passes for 1,027 yards and nine TDs in wins over the Lions, Giants and Falcons.
Saints by 6
Eagles (4-8) at Dolphins (4-8)
The Dream Team take their collective talents to South Beach, where Michael Vick will take his starting job back from Vince Young, who went 1–2 as his substitute.
Dolphins by 2
Vikings (2-10) at Lions (7-5)
Detroit held on for a 26–23 win at Minnesota in Week 3. Having lost three of their last four, the Lions need to regroup down the stretch.
Lions by 6
49ers (10-2) at Cardinals (5-7)
San Fran crushed Arizona, 23–7, in Week 11. Expect a similar outcome this week.
49ers by 6
Bears (7-5) at Broncos (7-5)
The Brett Favre to Chicago rumors have been shot down. But wouldn’t that have been great? Favre vs. Tim Tebow in a matchup that might have caused the internet to shut down.
Broncos by 4
Raiders (7-5) at Packers (12-0)
This rematch of Super Bowl II pits two classic franchises against each other in a game with playoff implications. Oakland is alive in the AFC West race, while Green Bay is still undefeated.
Packers by 11
Bills (5-7) at Chargers (5-7)
Two teams in the middle of a downward spiral collide when Buffalo — losers of five straight — hits San Diego — losers of six of last seven.
Chargers by 2
Giants (6-6) at Cowboys (7-5)
This Sunday night NFC East fight is the first of two matchups between the G-Men and Boys over the last four weeks of the season. And with the division up in the air — and coaches Tom Coughlin and Jason Garrett on the hot seat — both teams are in must-win mode.
Cowboys by 1
Rams (2-10) at Seahawks (5-7)
This Monday night party is a rematch from Week 11, when Seattle won 24–7 at St. Louis. Strangely, that is the only game over the past five weeks that Marshawn Lynch has been held under 100 yards rushing. “Beast Mode” has 591 yards and five TDs, and the Hawks have a 3–2 record during that stretch.
Seahawks by 5
Last week: 11-5 // Season: 133-59
Tim Tebow for MVP? The Tebow hype machine has really taken it to the next level. Maybe Tim Terrific can be TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year? And hasn’t Superman done enough to garner Nobel Peace Prize consideration? Really? Give the man a full season before anointing him as the greatest in the game.
If making a mockery of the MVP is the goal, at least give Peyton Manning his record-extending fifth MVP award. After all, has any player proved his value more than Manning this year? The Indianapolis Colts went from perennial Super Bowl contender to league laughingstock following Manning’s pain in the neck.
This season’s MVP discussion consists of two names — “Aaron” and “Rodgers.” Over the first three quarters of the season, the Green Bay Packers quarterback has blown out the competition; A-Rodg doesn’t even need to play the fourth quarter of the year to walk away with his first of what could be many MVP awards.
Outside of the Super Bowl XLV MVP, New Orleans Saints record-breaker Drew Brees — who became the first quarterback in history to pass for over 4,000 yards over the first 12 games of the season and is on pace to throw for over 5,300 yards, which would shatter Dan Marino’s 1984 single-season record of 5,084 passing yards — is the only other viable MVP option. Brees has the numbers, leads one of the NFL’s best teams and plays the right position to take home the hardware.
A quarterback has earned MVP honors in eight of the last 10 seasons, with Manning (four awards), Tom Brady (two), Steve McNair, Rich Gannon and Kurt Warner taking the top individual prize. Dynamic running backs Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson each won after breaking the single-season rushing TD record.
After guiding the Denver Broncos on an unbelievable run this year, Tebow certainly deserves the worldwide praise he’s receiving — but not the NFL’s MVP award.
– Nathan Rush
Let’s see — Tim Tebow took over a 1–4 team that was in disarray and headed nowhere and led it into playoff contention. If that isn’t the definition of a Valuable Player, I don’t know what is. Whether you can add the designation “Most” is an open question, especially given the exploits of the guy up in Green Bay, but Tebow certainly belongs in the discussion.
Some would argue that the Denver defense is the team’s true collective MVP. I would counter that Tebow is a key component of Denver’s defense, even if he’s merely Tebow-ing on the sidelines while the defense does its work. Football is a game of possessions; if you don’t have the ball, you can’t score. Tebow and the Broncos are playing a remarkably effective game of keep-away. By shortening the game with the NFL’s leading rushing attack and protecting the football, Tebow and the Denver offense are playing the most effective brand of defense imaginable.
Perhaps most important, Tebow, the true believer, creates belief among his teammates. The defense, knowing its margin for error is slim, plays a little harder. The offensive line holds its blocks a little longer. And in the game’s waning minutes, the team knows its leader will make just enough plays to win.
“Just having that guy around, it makes us better men,” said linebacker Von Miller. “I think he plays for us, and he makes us want to play for him.”
Bottom line: Whether John Elway likes it or not, the current Denver formula is a winner. Will it last for the long haul? That’s debatable, but the current results are not. Tebow is the story of the NFL at the moment. He’s also an MVP candidate.
– Rob Doster
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seahawks
“Beast Mode” was powered by Skittles on Thursday night, as Lynch totaled 22 carries for a season-high 148 yards and two TDs during a 31–14 win over the Eagles. In between Lynch’s two scoring romps — a 15-yarder where he disappeared in a crowd before exploding into the end zone, and a 40-yard sprint across the field, down the sideline and over the goal line — the Cal product was busy eating colorful chewy candy, “tasting the rainbow” and basking in the cheers of Seattle’s 12th Man.
Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
The original Browns — who became the Ravens after moving to Baltimore in 1996 — returned to Cleveland to take on the expansion Browns — whose proud franchise returned to the NFL after a three-year absence in 1999. Rice had the type of day even Jim Brown would be proud of, with a season-high 29 carries for a career-high 204 yards and one TD during a 24–10 victory at the Dawg Pound.
Tim Tebow, QB, Broncos
Superman continues to soar, improving his record as a starter to 6–1 this season with a 35–32 come-from-behind win at Minnesota. Tebow completed 10-of-15 passes for a season-high 202 yards, two scoring strikes and zero picks for a career-high 149.3 passer rating. Demaryius Thomas, Tebow’s draft classmate and go-to receiver, hauled in four catches for 144 yards and both TDs in the thrilling victory.
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick showed off his entire athletic arsenal during a 38–19 road win at Tampa Bay. The 6'5", 248-pound Newton completed 12-of-21 passes for 204 yards, one TD and zero INTs through the air; caught the first pass of his young career for 27 yards; and had 14 rushes for 54 yards and three TDs on the ground. The triple-threat rookie now has 13 rushing scores this season, breaking Steve Grogan’s 1976 record (12) for rushing TDs by a quarterback.
Drew Brees, QB, Saints
After having their game against the Lions flexed to the prime time Sunday night slot — in place of the previously scheduled Colts at Patriots — the Saints flexed their muscle on national TV. Brees became the first quarterback in history to top 4,000 yards passing over the first 12 games of the season, reaching the milestone after completing 26-of-36 passes for 342 yards, three TDs and zero INTs in a 31–17 win.
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 13, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Eagles (4-7) at Seahawks (4-7)
When the schedule was released, no one would have predicted that Philadelphia and Seattle would enter this Thursday night bird fight with identical records. With a short week of rest, Michael Vick (ribs) may be forced to sit out, giving Vince Young his third straight start.
Eagles by 3
Jets (6-5) at Redskins (4-7)
New York aims to win in back-to-back weeks for the first time since Weeks 6-7.
Jets by 5
Chiefs (4-7) at Bears (7-4)
These two teams made the playoffs last year and had hopes of returning to the postseason until losing their quarterbacks — Matt Cassel (hand) and Jay Cutler (thumb) — to injury.
Bears by 5
Titans (6-5) at Bills (5-6)
The last time these two teams met, Tennessee owner Bud Adams celebrated a 41–17 win by shooting the bird to rival Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson and any Bills fan in sight while dancing in his owner’s box. Now 88 years old, Adams has presumably matured since then and may or may not flip off the 93-year-old Wilson again.
Titans by 3
Raiders (7-4) at Dolphins (3-8)
Both squads are 3–1 over their last four games. But Oakland still has a playoff berth in reach.
Dolphins by 1
Bengals (7-4) at Steelers (8-3)
Cincinnati faces Pittsburgh for the second time in four games, after losing 24–17 in Week 10. In that game, the Steel Curtain forced Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton into rookie mistakes, including two fourth-quarter INTs.
Steelers by 6
Falcons (7-4) at Texans (8-3)
Houston has a problem — at quarterback. After losing Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart to season-ending injuries, the Texans have become desperate, turning to third-stringer T.J. Yates and working out washed-up has-beens like Jake Delhomme and Jeff Garcia.
Falcons by 4
Broncos (6-5) at Vikings (2-9)
Tim Tebow attempts to improve his record as a starter to 6–1 this season. However, this will be his first career NFL start inside a dome.
Broncos by 4
Panthers (3-8) at Buccaneers (4-7)
This is the first of many division games between giant young quarterbacks — Newton (6'5", 248) and Josh Freeman (6'6", 248).
Buccaneers by 2
Colts (0-11) at Patriots (8-3)
What would have been a Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady heavyweight fight on Sunday night has become a game so bad that it had to be flexed off of NBC’s schedule and Las Vegas is favoring the Patriots by 20 or more points.
Patriots by 23
Ravens (8-3) at Browns (4-7)
The relocated Jim Browns head back home to face the expansion Courtney Browns in the game Art Modell made possible when he moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1996.
Ravens by 6
Packers (11-0) at Giants (6-5)
Big Blue is on a three-game slide, while the Cheesehead Nation hasn’t experienced a loss since Dec. 19, 2010.
Packers by 7
Cowboys (7-4) at Cardinals (4-7)
Emmitt Smith rushed for 17,162 yards for the Boys and 1,193 yards for the Cards. Hopefully the results of this game won’t be so lopsided.
Cowboys by 5
Rams (2-9) at 49ers (9-2)
St. Louis’ 32nd-ranked rush defense (159 ypg) and San Fran’s No. 1 rush defense (75.5 ypg) meet in a game between the worst and first of the NFC West division.
49ers by 14
Lions (7-4) at Saints (8-3)
Both teams must avoid a hangover, albeit for decidedly different reasons. Detroit embarrassed itself on Thanksgiving; New Orleans was unstoppable on Monday night.
Saints by 7
Chargers (4-7) at Jaguars (3-8)
Jacksonville just fired its head coach and is in the process of selling its franchise. Somehow, San Diego seems to be an even worse trainwreck. The Bolts are riding a six-game losing streak after entering their bye with a 4–1 mark.
Chargers by 1
Last week: 14–2 // Season: 122–54
Commissioner Roger Goodell was powerless when it came to punishing Detroit Lions mauler Ndamukong Suh, following his idiotic cheapshot, head-banging and stomping of Green Bay Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith on Thanksgiving. The court of public opinion played the role of judge, jury and executioner in this particular case.
Had Suh lost his cool on any given Sunday during the season, rather than the fourth Thursday in November, the punishment almost certainly would have been lighter than the two-game suspension — and roughly $164,000 fine in game checks.
Look at Suh’s track record. Before overheating on Turkey Day, he had been fined a grand total of $42,500 for “dirty” hits on three quarterbacks — Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton ($20,000), Chicago’s Jay Cutler ($15,000) and Cleveland’s Jake Delhomme ($7,500).
Hits that jeopardized the future of two franchise cornerstones (Dalton, Cutler) were worth five-figure checks. If that’s the going rate for franchise quarterbacks, how much is stepping on the arm of a no-name Packer O-lineman worth?
But too many grandmothers, crazy uncles and young kids were watching. Whereas Barry Sanders’ greatness needed no explanation to wow the Thanksgiving crowd once upon a time, Suh’s foolishness disgusted many fringe football fans in the family and caused entirely too much unwanted commotion for what should be a laid-back day. Suh is paying for ruining dinner conversation more than he is for his so-called “stomp.”
When Albert Haynesworth scraped his spikes over Andre Gurode’s face in 2006, the aftermath resulted in 30 stitches and a five-game suspension. Dietrich-Smith did not need stitches; he didn’t even miss a down. Suh’s punishment is too harsh for the crime.
– Nathan Rush
This one’s a no-brainer, and I’m starting to think that Suh is, too. Knowing he needed to watch his step given his previous transgressions, Suh instead stomped an opponent during the league’s biggest Thanksgiving showcase game in years and then showed an appalling lack of contrition and self-awareness afterwards. He deserves suspension on the grounds of unforgivable stupidity alone.
To recap, in case you were already in a tryptophan coma when the incident occurred and have been ignoring the news ever since: After a play in the Lions’ 27–15 Thanksgiving Day loss to Green Bay, Suh shoved the head of Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith into the ground, then got up and stomped on his arm.
After the game, Suh offered an incoherent “apology” that essentially asked us to ignore what our lying eyes had told us. “I apologize to my teammates and my fans and my coaches for putting myself in a position to be misinterpreted and taken out of the game,” he said. Misinterpreted? Was he showing Dietrich-Smith a new dance move?
After the subsequent ridicule, Suh changed his tune and reached out to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell with a more carefully scripted apology, but the damage was done, and the commissioner’s office handed down a two-game suspension that was, if anything, too lenient. In an era of extreme sensitivity to injury, actions that extend well beyond aggression and into the realm of assault simply can’t be tolerated, and Goodell was forced to respond firmly.
The Suh Stomp joins a list of misdeeds that now includes eight personal foul penalties since the start of the 2010 season and five instances of league discipline.
Sometimes, aggression can be misinterpreted and a player can acquire an unfair label. That’s not the case with Suh. With his latest boneheaded act, Suh confirmed every suspicion about him. His reputation as a dirty player is well-earned, and growing.
– Rob Doster
Drew Brees, QB, Saints
Eli Manning’s New Orleans homecoming was spoiled by the Big Easy’s favorite quarterback. Brees completed 24-of-38 passes for 363 yards, four TDs and zero INTs, while scrambling for another score on the ground — after which the 6'0" passer attempted to dunk the ball over the goal post, settling instead for a finger-roll — during a 49–24 rout on Monday night.
Chris Johnson, RB, Titans
During a sloppy game in cold, rainy conditions played on a newly-sodded LP Field in Nashville, CJ proved to be a mudder. The much-maligned Johnson had 23 carries for a season-high 190 yards, his 27th career 100-yard performance and his best effort since Nov. 1, 2008 in a 23–17 victory over the Buccaneers. It was not a flawless effort by Johnson, who lost a fumble — one of nine combined turnovers on the day.
Beanie Wells, RB, Cardinals
Ottis Anderson, Emmitt Smith, Edgerrin James and every running back in Cardinals history now trail Wells, who set a new franchise standard with 27 carries for a team-record 228 yards and one TD during a 23–20 win at St. Louis — the Cardinals’ hometown from 1960-87 before the team moved to Phoenix in 1988.
Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
The three-time Super Bowl champion was in rare form, even by his own lofty standards, in a 38–20 victory on the road against the Eagles in a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX. Brady picked apart Philly’s vaunted secondary, completing 24-of-34 passes for 361 yards, three TDs — two to Wes Welker and one to Rob Gronkowski — and zero INTs in the win.
Tim Tebow, QB, Broncos
Superman continued his meteoric rise, improving to 5–1 as a starter this season following a 16–13 overtime win over the AFC West rival Chargers. Tebow completed 9-of-18 passes for 143 yards, one TD and zero INTs, while tucking the ball on 22 carries for 67 rushing yards. The polarizing lefty now has 11 total TDs and only two turnovers, while the Broncos remain alive in the division race despite their 1–4 start.
Terrell Suggs, LB, Ravens
As expected, the Harbaugh Bowl — the NFL’s first head-coaching matchup between brothers, the 49ers’ Jim and Ravens’ John — was a defensive battle between two of the top stop-units in the game. Baltimore outlasted San Francisco on Thanksgiving night, thanks in large part to a dominant performance by Suggs, who had three sacks and a forced fumble in a 16–6 win.
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 12, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
49ers (9-1) at Ravens (7-3)
NFL Network’s main event on Thursday night is a family affair that pits Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers against his older brother John Harbaugh’s Ravens. This marks the first time in the NFL’s 92-year history that brothers have head-coached against each other. In fact, a San Fran win coupled with a Seattle loss to Washington would crown the Niners NFC West champions.
Ravens by 2
Packers (10-0) at Lions (7-3)
Green Bay is off to its first 10–0 start since 1962. That year, the Packers stumbled on the road against the Lions, suffering their first loss at Detroit in Week 11. This Thanksgiving Day game in the Motor City also sets up as a trap for the reigning champs, who have had back-to-back short weeks, with a Monday night tilt in Week 10 and this week’s Thursday kickoff.
Packers by 5
Dolphins (3-7) at Cowboys (6-4)
Miami and Dallas are a combined 6–0 the last three weeks. The team with the fewest mental mistakes — or Leon Lett moments — wins.
Cowboys by 5
Bills (5-5) at Jets (5-5)
Buffalo’s current three-game losing streak started with a 27–11 loss at home to the Jets in Week 9. If New York loses, they will complain about too much time off after a Thursday loss.
Jets by 6
Browns (4-6) at Bengals (6-4)
The Buckeye State Bowl went Cincy’s way, 27–17, in Week 1. The Bengals need a season sweep of the Browns after losing two straight to AFC North rivals Steelers and Ravens.
Bengals by 6
Vikings (2-8) at Falcons (6-4)
Rookie Christian Ponder carries a 1–3 record into Atlanta, where Matt Ryan is 21–4 all-time.
Falcons by 10
Texans (7-3) at Jaguars (3-7)
Subbing for Matt Schaub, backup Matt Leinart looks to repeat Houston’s 24–14 victory against Jacksonville in Week 8. Pressure’s on.
Texans by 5
Cardinals (3-7) at Rams (2-8)
The Cardinals return to St. Louis, where the franchise played from 1960-87. Arizona took down St. Louis, 19–13, in Week 9.
Cardinals by 1
Buccaneers (4-6) at Titans (5-5)
Albert Haynesworth returns to Nashville — his old stomping ground, so to speak. It will be hard to tell whether the 330-pound run-stuffer did his job if Chris Johnson runs like he did in the loss at Atlanta (13 yards on 12 carries).
Titans by 3
Giants (6-4) at Saints (7-3)
This Monday night party brings New Orleans native and Isidore Newman High School alum Eli Manning back home to face his daddy Archie’s old team, which also happens to be the same squad that upset his older brother Peyton’s Colts in the Super Bowl two years ago.
Saints by 6
Panthers (2-8) at Colts (0-10)
The worst team of 2010 travels to take on the worst team of 2011. Indy is coming off a bye, while Cam Newton has struggled in two straight games. Is this the week the Colts win?
Panthers by 9
Redskins (3-7) at Seahawks (4-6)
The Skins’ six-game losing streak is the worst since Dan Snyder paid $800 million for the team and Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in 1999.
Seahawks by 4
Bears (7-3) at Raiders (6-4)
With Jay Cutler out with a broken thumb, Chicago turns to backup Caleb Hanie, who is making his first career start and is 8-of-14 for 66 yards and one INT in his four-year career.
Raiders by 3
Patriots (7-3) at Eagles (4-6)
This was one of the most anticipated matchups of the year when schedules were released. Since then, Philly’s “Dream Team” has been sleepwalking through a disappointing season.
Patriots by 8
Broncos (5-5) at Chargers (4-6)
Tim Tebow has 10 total TDs and two turnovers; Philip Rivers has 16 total TDs and 21 turnovers.
Chargers by 1
Steelers (7-3) at Chiefs (4-6)
Tyler Palko’s first two career starts are national television games against the Patriots (34–3) and Steelers. In his first action under the lights, Palko threw zero TDs and three INTs in defeat.
Steelers by 12
Last week: 10–4 // Season: 108–52
John Harbaugh, Ravens
Jack Harbaugh — a longtime college coach who won a Division I-AA national title at Western Kentucky in 2002 — has an NFL coaching tree that consists of his two sons, Jim and John. In the Harbaugh family, there’s sizzle (Jim) and then there’s steak (John). I’ll take John’s substantive track record over Jim’s stylish start.
Jim untucks his shirt, hoots, hollers and jumps around like he’s won the Super Bowl — after a Week 6 win over traditional doormat Detroit — disrespectfully slap-fiving the opposing coach, embarrassing himself and overshadowing his team’s hard-fought win with a rookie, bush league move. Who does that? The best in the business don’t.
Twelve coaches have won multiple Super Bowls — Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Chuck Noll, Tom Landry, Tom Flores, Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson, George Seifert, Mike Shanahan and Bill Belichick. How many of those men would have celebrated like Jim Harbaugh? How many are better than that?
John keeps his cool like a champion when confronted with off-the-wall insanity. When Chiefs hot-head coach Todd Haley accused the Ravens of “running up the score” in a preseason game, John Harbaugh was the bigger man, calmly explaining the situation without talking down. Come to think of it, John probably has decades of experience settling down his similarly exciteable little brother Jim.
Reliably cool under pressure, John Harbaugh had a 42–22 record (including playoffs) entering his Thanksgiving night fight with Jim. Only the Steelers (45) have more wins since John took over in 2008. The 49-year-old is the only coach in NFL history to take over a team with a losing record (5–11) and proceed to win a playoff game in each of the next three seasons. In fact, Baltimore is the only team in the entire NFL with a win in each of the last three postseasons, going 4–3 with a trip to the AFC title game.
Growing up, Jim was the better quarterback. Today, John is the better coach.
– Nathan Rush
Jim Harbaugh, 49ers
I’ll stipulate right off the bat that in making the case for Jim as the better Harbaugh, I’m doing my share of projecting; he’s in his first NFL season, after all, and that’s too small a sample size to draw any definitive conclusions. But what a season. Jim has taken the high-energy, high-emotion approach that made him such an immediate success at the University of San Diego and Stanford and gone pro with it.
In his first year after leaving the low-pressure comfort of The Farm, Jim has done more than breathe new life into a once-proud franchise. He’s pulled off a near-miracle. It’s not like anyone thought that this team was a piece or two away from contention; if anything, the disastrous Mike Singletary regime seemed to set the 49ers’ already sagging fortunes on an irreversible course toward irrelevance.
In the eight seasons leading up to Harbaugh’s hiring, the 49ers went a combined 46–82, never winning more than eight games in any one of those seasons and suffering double-digit losses in four of them, including a 6–10 showing in 2010. Harbaugh’s Niners have already clinched a winning season and will be playing meaningful January games for the first time since 2002.
The most amazing aspect of the Niners’ sudden turnaround? The Alex Smith Reclamation Project. We all knew that Harbaugh could develop quarterbacks — he was Andrew Luck’s primary tutor for three years — but this is ridiculous. Under his third head coach and seventh different offensive coordinator, Smith is suddenly thriving, showing unprecedented accuracy and leadership. Is it a coincidence that Smith’s emergence has coincided with Harbaugh’s arrival? Hardly. It’s simply the by-product of playing for the best coach named Harbaugh on the planet, and one of the best, period.
– Rob Doster
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
Tom Brady’s favorite target hauled in four catches for 96 yards and two memorable trips to the end zone — a 52-yard sprint down the sideline that put the 6'6", 265-pounder’s speed on display and a 19-yard dive over the goal line that flipped Gronkowski onto his neck before the second-year star staggered to his feet and spiked the ball. Gronkowski now has 20 TDs in his first 26 games, breaking Bears Hall of Famer Mike Ditka’s record (31) for fewest games by a tight end to score 20 TDs.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
This season, even when Rodgers is “frustrated” with his performance on Sunday, he’s still one of the best in the business. The frontrunner for MVP completed 23-of-34 passes for 299 yards, three TDs and one INT in a 35–26 victory over the Buccaneers, as the Packers improved to 10–0. Rodgers has passed for 3,168 yards, a career-high 31 TDs and only four INTs for a 128.8 passer rating, adding another two TDs on the ground on Green Bay’s run of perfection.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
In a battle of former No. 1 overall picks, 2009’s numero uno outplayed 2011’s top selection, as Detroit rallied to beat Carolina and Cam Newton, 49–35. The Lions outscored the Panthers 35–8 in the second half, becoming the first team since 1950 to earn three come-from-behind wins of at least 17 points in the same season. Stafford threw a career-best five TDs, while Newton tossed a career-worst four INTs.
Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
In a battle for AFC North supremacy, Baltimore outlasted Cincinnati, 31–24 — despite playing without middle linebacker and leader Ray Lewis for the first time in 58 games. The “other Ray” was in tip-top shape, however, as Rice ran by the Bengals with 20 carries for 104 rush yards and two short-yardage TDs, while adding five catches for 43 yards through the air. The Ravens have now won 15 of their last 16 home games.
Von Miller, LB, Broncos
Although Tim Tebow scored the game-winning TD with 58 seconds left in the Broncos’ 17–13 win over the Jets on Thursday night, Denver’s defense deserves as much or more credit for the dramatic come-from-behind victory. Miller led the charge with 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble, wreaking havoc off the edge and energizing the crowd, as the Broncos held the Jets to just 3-of-14 third-down conversions, forced six punts and created two turnovers.
Tim Tebow’s Superman success collides with the wrath of Rex Ryan in a Thursday night fight between the Denver Broncos and New York Jets under the lights at Mile High.
And this comical clash of the titans will certainly end in life or death soap opera hysterics, regardless of the outcome.
If the Broncos win, Tebow will improve his record as a starter this year to 4–1 while handing the Jets their second loss in five days, following a 37–16 defeat at home against their hated AFC East rival Patriots on Sunday night — just over 100 hours prior to Thursday’s kickoff.
“All Tim Tebow does is win,” everyone in Denver and Gator Nation will say.
“No other team in the NFL is playing a Thursday night game after a Sunday night game,” Ryan, the Jets and New York’s greater metropolitan area will complain.
If the Jets win, the season will be saved — at least until they kick off against the division-rival Bills next week — and Tebow will once again become the whipping boy he was following his only loss and, coincidentally, his only start at Invesco Field this year, an ugly 45–10 defeat to the Lions in Week 8.
“Tebow can’t play quarterback in the NFL,” and “The single-wing, run-first, option offense will never work in the pros,” will be repeated ad nauseam among televised talking heads and drive time drones.
The over-the-top insanity will be more fun if Tebow wins. And, like it or not, Tebow-led Denver probably will beat Jet-lagged New York.
There is a new energy around the Broncos since Tebow was reluctantly named the starting quarterback of a 1–4 team by coach John Fox and John Elway — who apparently would rather “Suck for Luck” with Kyle Orton than win with Tebow, who was drafted by persona non grata Josh McDaniels.
On the other side, the Jets are in a tailspin downward spiral, coming off a painful loss to the Patriots. After making back-to-back AFC title games, quarterback Mark Sanchez has not taken the strides many expected — both physically and mentally — most recently calling a timeout against New England that Ryan called “the stupidest thing in football history.”
A quick turnaround from Sunday night to Thursday night is the last thing New York needs. The Jets seem to be stuck in the past, ready for a rematch with the Patriots rather than a one-off with the Broncos.
“Mentally, we know it’s a great challenge,” said Ryan, of the short week of preparation. “You go right back at it and really seeing the difference between playing Denver compared to New England. It’s so different that you have no choice but to say, ‘Hey, let’s go. That thing is behind us now, let’s just focus on what is in front of us.’ Because we have to. This is such a different challenge for us. We can’t do anything, that game right there (against the Patriots), we can’t win that game right now.”
Meanwhile, Denver is in the midst of breaking out an offense so old it’s new again. The Broncos ran the ball 55 times for 244 yards and a seven-yard Tebow TD, while throwing just eight passes (completing two) for 69 yards and a 56-yard scoring strike from Tebow to Eric Decker for what proved to be the winning fourth-quarter score of a 17–10 victory at Kansas City last week.
“They did throw it eight times. But it was 55 runs. We don’t know exactly what we’re going to get. We just have to be sound (defensively),” explained Ryan, during his weekly Tuesday press conference.
“They’ve been really multiple. Sometimes they spread them out. They’ll go empty (backfield) and then run the ball with the quarterback. Running “O” plays and all that stuff. So no matter what you see, you’ll probably start by saying, ‘It’s probably a run,’ and then we’ll defend the pass after it.
“But you’re looking at formations or personnel groupings that tell you it’s going to be a pass, and it’s not with this group. That’s a little different, but you’d better be sound and obviously assume he’s running with it.”
The assumption of a Tebow run, option pitch or handoff would appear to be especially powerful against a proud New York secondary coming off a game in which Tom Brady threw 39 passes for 329 yards and three TDs while New England had no back with over eight carries on the ground.
Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner and All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis may experience an unwanted “Lost”-style solitary purgatory in a new version of “Revis Island.” And that lack-of-pass Broncos attack might create a foggy focus for the likes Antonio Cromartie, who has been known to sleepwalk through a play and get burnt deep.
“We can’t fall asleep back there in the secondary,” Revis stressed this week. “It can get boring, especially when a team just keeps running the ball, series after series, play after play.”
Tebow may not throw a Peyton Manning spiral, but his wobbly duck made it over the top of the Chiefs defense and hit Decker in-stride last week for an easy score, while also padding Tebow’s career-high 102.6 passer rating. The Broncos’ Tebow-oriented offense may not be conventional by NFL standards, but if it ain’t broke Fox ain’t fixing it.
“As long as you’re moving the ball, possessing the ball, giving your defense some rest, it’s all good,” said Fox, after taking down the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
“We’re trying to do whatever is going to help us to win. In my opinion, that’s all part of coaching — putting your players in position to utilize their abilities. … It is a little cliché, but you take what the defense gives you.”
A tired, dejected Jets defense will probably give Tebow just enough to pull off a Broncos upset Thursday night on NFL Network.
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 11, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Chargers (4-5) at Bears (6-3)
Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler have a feud that goes back to Cutler’s days with Denver. The two have exchanged trash talk over the years, with Cutler saying they “aren’t the best of friends” and Rivers boasting that he’d “have been taken off in a cart” when responding to Cutler sitting out the second half of last year’s NFC title game with an injury. The Monsters of the Midway defense may get revenge for their quarterback.
Bears by 6
Jets (5-4) at Broncos (4-5)
Rex Ryan’s crew isn’t happy about having the quickest turnaround of the season — kicking off in Denver on Thursday night after losing to the Patriots last Sunday night. But there is no rest for the weary. The Jets will attempt to stop Tim Tebow’s old-school option offense.
Jets by 4
Raiders (5-4) at Vikings (2-7)
Oakland has been resting since last Thursday’s win over San Diego; Minnesota has a short week after losing to Green Bay on Monday.
Raiders by 2
Bills (5-4) at Dolphins (2-7)
Two teams headed in different directions — Miami is 2–0 following an 0–7 start; Buffalo is 1–3 after going 4–1 out of the gate.
Bills by 2
Jaguars (3-6) at Browns (3-6)
Cleveland is averaging only 10 points over its last four games, going 1–3 during that stretch.
Browns by 1
Bengals (6-3) at Ravens (6-3)
With the AFC North up for grabs, both Cincinnati and Baltimore must regroup after tough losses. The Bengals fell to the Steelers at home, while the Ravens were stunned by the Seahawks on the West Coast after capping a season sweep of Pittsburgh the week prior.
Ravens by 6
Panthers (2-7) at Lions (6-3)
These cats are collectively licking their wounds. Carolina was shut down by Tennessee in Cam Newton’s first “bad” game in the NFL, while Detroit was embarrassed by Chicago in Matt Stafford’s “worst” game of his young career.
Lions by 7
Buccaneers (4-5) at Packers (9-0)
The battle of the Bays pits former NFC Central rivals Tampa Bay — losers in four of its last five games — against Green Bay — the reigning Super Bowl champs who have won 15 straight. The Packers are attempting to become the 14th team in the Super Bowl era to start 10–0.
Packers by 12
Eagles (3-6) at Giants (6-3)
After being a healthy inactive as punishment for a missed meeting, DeSean Jackson returns to the scene of his greatest moment in the NFL. Last season’s “Miracle at the Meadowlands” punt return was a 65-yard walk-off score by Jackson that served as a knockout blow to the Giants. In that game, the Eagles scored 28 points in the final 7:28 to pull off a 38–31 win.
Giants by 4
Cowboys (5-4) at Redskins (3-6)
Dallas protected its home turf at Jerry’s House, beating Washington 18–16 in Week 3. Since then, the Boys have been riding an unpredictable roller coaster while the Skins have been in a consistent downward spiral.
Cowboys by 10
Cardinals (3-6) at 49ers (8-1)
Jim Harbaugh’s Niners are playing great. But San Fran hasn’t faced Arizona’s John Skelton, who is 2–0 since taking over for Kevin Kolb.
49ers by 11
Seahawks (3-6) at Rams (2-7)
The last time these two teams played was a Week 17 playoff play-in to settle the NFC Worst division title. Seattle made the playoffs at 7–9.
Rams by 1
Titans (5-4) at Falcons (5-4)
Two teams with playoff aspirations meet at a critical juncture. Technically, this isn’t do-or-die, but it sure feels like a fourth down in overtime.
Falcons by 5
Chiefs (4-5) at Patriots (6-3)
K.C.’s general manager Scott Pioli returns to New England, where he helped Bill Belichick build a three-time Super Bowl champion during his tenure with the team (2000-08). But the Chiefs will be without starting quarterback Matt Cassel, who served as Tom Brady’s backup before following Pioli to Kansas City.
Patriots by 17
Last week: 10–6 // Season: 98–48
Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith went for it rather than punt on 4th-and-Inches from his own 29-yard-line with 10:52 remaining in overtime against the NFC South division rival New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
Smith made the right decision — it just didn’t work out. And now the armchair quarterbacks and Monday morning second-guessers have formed a unified front against the fourth-year Falcons coach who has a 38–17 record with three trips to the playoffs but only a 2–5 record against the Saints.
“I know it will be scrutinized all week long,” said Smith, immediately following the most controversial decision of his NFL head coaching career. “I want everybody to understand I take full responsibility.”
Needing less than one foot, Smith sent Atlanta’s offense onto the field and ran the ball up the middle with the 5'10", 247-pound Michael Turner, who was promptly stuffed and stopped short of a first down by a blitzing New Orleans defense that timed the snap-count perfectly.
“I just saw a guy in my face as soon as I got the ball,” said an obviously disappointed Turner.
“I had my choices between the holes I could hit if they were there, but they just came with the all-out blitz, guys shot the gap and things like that. There really wasn’t anywhere to go. I just tried to try harder and give that great effort to get those couple of inches that we needed. …
“I’d like to have it back. I would love to be in that situation again.”
The failure on fourth resulted in a short field for the Saints, who took over on downs and got one first down before trotting out John Kasay for a 26-yard game-winning field goal that gave New Orleans a 26–23 victory and first place in the NFC South.
“We were going to be aggressive in all that we did,” explained Smith. “Unfortunately, it did not work out.”
For Smith, it never seems to work out against the Saints. Last season, the Falcons trailed by three points with 2:52 to play on 4th-and-6 from their 43-yard-line with two timeouts left. Smith decided to punt; Brees made him pay with a clock-killing drive to seal a 17–14 New Orleans victory in Week 16 at Atlanta on Monday night.
Back in 2008, Smith chose to punt on 4th-and-5 from Atlanta’s 35-yard-line with 3:23 to play, two timeouts remaining, trailing the Saints 29–25. Guess what happened? New Orleans marched for three first downs, milked the clock and took a Week 14 win.
So when faced with the decision to go for it on 4th-and-Inches or punt the ball back to Brees in a sudden-death overtime situation, this time Smith chose to go for it and give his power run game a chance to pick up the first to keep the drive alive.
“It takes some steel and you-know-what to make that call,” said Brees. “This one play is the game.”
Rivalry history and 2011 split stats — teams going for it on 4th-and-1 had converted 41 of 72 times heading into Week 10 this year — were on Smith’s side. And so was his team, despite the ultimate failure.
“I like the fact our coach has faith in us to make the play,” said center Todd McClure.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seahawks
“Beast Mode” was in full effect in Seattle, as the Hawks powered to a 22–17 victory over the Ravens. With Qwest Field’s “12th Man” rocking, Lynch rumbled for 109 yards and one TD on a workhorse-load of 32 carries, while also catching five passes for 58 yards. Kicker Steven Hauschka tied a franchise record with five FGs, but it was Lynch who enabled Seattle to own time-of-possession 35:01-to-24:59 and take down heavily-favored Baltimore.
Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
Bill Belichick and Brady passed Don Shula and Dan Marino as the winningest coach-QB duo in NFL history, notching their 117th career victory with a 37–16 triumph over the Jets on Sunday night. The three-time Super Bowl-winning pair have a 117–35 record (.770 win percentage) over 152 games since 2000. Brady completed 26-of-39 passes for 329 yards, three TDs — two of which went to tight end Rob Gronkowski — and zero INTs against the Jets, taking over first place in the AFC East in the process.
Arian Foster, RB, Texans
With Andre Johnson missing his sixth straight game due to an injured hamstring, Foster stepped up in the passing game — while also continuing to power Houston’s ground attack. The undrafted free-agent turned fantasy football star had four receptions for 102 yards and a 78-yard catch-and-run to paydirt, along with 17 carries for 84 yards and one TD during a 37–9 blowout win at Tampa Bay.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals
It doesn’t matter who’s throwing the passes — whether it’s Kurt Warner or Kevin Kolb or even John Skelton — Fitzgerald finds a way to get open and make plays downfield. Arizona’s go-to target hauled in seven catches for 146 yards and two TDs in a shocking 21–17 upset win on the road in Philadelphia. Fitzgerald’s two scores were the 69th and 70th of his career, breaking the franchise record set by Ray Green.
The Indianapolis Colts’ Super Bowl is this weekend against the Jacksonville Jaguars — roughly three months before Super Bowl XLVI kicks off at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy.
Sitting at 0–9, as the NFL’s lone remaining winless team, the Colts must capitalize on this week’s opportunity against the familiar AFC South division rival Jaguars, or risk joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only 0–16 teams in history.
Jim Caldwell’s blank stare will be slightly less confused this weekend, as the stars align for Indianapolis to pull off its first victory of the post-Peyton Manning era.
“I expect big things this week,” said receiver Austin Collie. “(Pro Bowl center) Jeff Saturday kind of took it upon himself to kind of kick the offense in the butt and make sure we get things going. The season is not over with. I think offensively you’re going to see a different offense. You’re going to see an offense that’s going to fight until the end.”
Jacksonville is a 3-point favorite in Vegas, but the Jaguars are prime to be upset.
Jack Del Rio’s teams are traditionally sluggish following a bye week, with a 3–5 record after taking the previous week off since the former linebacker took over as coach of the Teal Curtain in 2003. As luck would have it, the Jags were busy collecting rust in Week 9, before heading north to take on the Colts in Week 10.
Jacksonville is also winless on the road this season, going 0–4 away from EverBank Field. In fact, the 2–6 Jaguars are a couple bounces of the ball away from being winless, having earned two of the uglier victories of the season — a 16–14 struggle over the Titans in Week 1 and a 12–7 flukish fist fight over the Ravens in Week 7.
This is the softest spot on the Colts’ remaining schedule, which includes a Week 11 bye to celebrate this week’s pending win, before a slate that includes Panthers, at Patriots, at Ravens, Titans, Texans and at Jagaurs.
Indy knows J-Ville well and has a history of recent success against the division foe, carrying a 5–1 mark over the past three seasons. Even without Manning, those good vibes and winning trend could continue.
After abruptly releasing longtime signal-caller David Garrard during the preseason, the Jags’ hacksaw quarterback crew of Luke McCown and rookie Blaine Gabbert have led a unit that ranks dead-last 32nd in both total offense (242.6 ypg) and scoring offense (12.2 ppg).
Clearly the Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter-led horseshoe offense pales in comparison to Manning’s Indy 500 vertical passing game. But shockingly the Colts still have better offensive numbers than the Jaguars. Indianapolis ranks 31st in total offense (282.8 ypg) and 30th in scoring offense (14.2 ppg).
“We need to get better and maybe approach this week with a little bit of fun,” said Painter, who has completed 53.3 percent of his passes for 1,221 yards, five TDs and five INTs with a 70.5 passer rating this season. “In the whole scheme of things, you want to have fun playing. You obviously will if you have a little success.”
It’s hard to lose 16 consecutive games. The Colts don’t have Manning, but they do have a roster with perennial Pro Bowlers like Saturday, receiver Reggie Wayne, tight end Dallas Clark and defensive end Dwight Freeney. Indianapolis will take down a bad Jacksonville team this week.
“It’s not fun (losing). It’s a bit embarrassing,” said Collie. “It’s our responsibility as players to go out there every single Sunday and to perform to our best. We haven’t been doing that. I think that’s going to change.
“There’s definitely a pep in our step this week. I think we’re ready to turn this thing around.”
by Nathan Rush
The surname Paterno mirrors the word paternal, whose Latin root “pater” means “father.”
For decades, that was a fitting twist of fate for Joe Paterno, who was by all accounts the grandfather of college football. The myth of “JoePa” was built on what now appears to be the illusion of integrity rather than the bedrock of principle most assumed.
After arriving at Penn State in 1950 as a 23-year-old fresh out of Brown University, Paterno rose to power in State College, taking over for his mentor Rip Engle and ultimately evolving into an 84-year-old elder statesman of the sport and society in general. Paterno was not just a monument of football and de facto mayor of Happy Valley, he was an iconic figure of American pop culture.
Yet following the Jerry Sandusky child-sex scandal, Paterno’s famous mantra of “Success with Honor” rings hollow. What price was paid for the Division I record 409 career wins, five undefeated-untied seasons and two national championships?
Sandusky was the architect of the “Linebacker U.” defense and a Nittany Lion lifer, as a player from 1963-65, a graduate assistant in ’66 and a defensive coach from ’69-99, serving as defensive coordinator from ’77 until he retired. This wasn’t just “some guy,” Sandusky was Paterno’s right-hand man and one-time heir apparent.
Allegedly, what amounts to a corporate-sponsored child rape ring was run by the sinister Sandusky in the football offices, locker rooms and showers at Penn State. A pathological pedophilic predator was on the loose in the backyard and home turf of the omnipotent Paterno. But the man lauded for leading, teaching and molding powerful young men on the football field was somehow unable or unwilling to protect helpless young boys from a friend and colleague outside the lines.
Paterno’s watchful eye looked the other way.
For now, the accepted truth is that Paterno did not know anything was amiss until March 2, 2002, when assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno that he had witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a 10-year-old boy in the showers at Penn State’s football facilities. On March 3, 2002, Paterno told athletic director Tim Curley. After notifying his “boss” — who made less money and had repeatedly proven powerless in attempts to fire or force the resignation of JoePa — the coach did nothing.
At best, Paterno went the better part of a decade allowing, rather than stopping, Sandusky’s horrific behavior. At worst, Paterno’s tacit endorsement of Sandusky’s evil actions had gone on for 20, maybe 30 years. But Paterno reportedly never brought up the subject with Sandusky. And he never alerted the police of a dangerous man who had adopted children, foster children and ran a charity (The Second Mile) for at-risk children.
“Somebody has to question about what I would consider the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child,” said Pennsylvania state police commissioner Frank Noonan.
“I think you have the moral responsibility, anyone. Not whether you’re a football coach or a university president or the guy sweeping the building. I think you have a moral responsibility to call (the police).”
The Paterno persona was presented as more than just a Brooklyn accent, thick glasses, wavy hair, blue tie, rolled-up khaki pants and black sneakers. There was implied substance with the signature style. There was a “Grand Experiment” and a “Penn State Way,” a holier-than-thou culture that took pride in the ideals of the university and its patriarch Paterno.
But Paterno has been fired and his empire is in ruins. A man who turns 85 on Dec. 21 is going through the most stressful time in his life. He will remain tied with Amos Alonzo Stagg for most games coached (548), instead of breaking the record on Senior Day at Beaver Stadium this Saturday against Nebraska, as planned.
More victims are likely to emerge from the dark shadows in the wake of Sandusky’s reign of terror, which is firmly rooted in Paterno’s betrayal of those who trusted him to do what was right — not harbor and nurture all that is wrong.
“If this is true we were all fooled,” Paterno said in his original official statement regarding the 40 counts of sexual abuse charged of Sandusky.
Tragically, this is true. And we were fooled — by Joe Paterno.
by Nathan Rush
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 10, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Steelers (6-3) at Bengals (6-2)
Cincy is playing its best football since the late 1980s, with the rookie combo of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green leading the way. A brutal second-half schedule — featuring two games vs. Pittsburgh (Weeks 10 and 13) and Baltimore (Weeks 11 and 17) — starts this week at Paul Brown Stadium.
Steelers by 3
Raiders (4-4) at Chargers (4-4)
The Bolts have lost all voltage following three straight defeats. Philip Rivers looks lost, having thrown a league-worst 14 INTs and lost an eyebrow-raising 17 total turnovers. Then again, Oakland’s Carson Palmer is averaging more turnovers per game (3) than Rivers (2.125).
Chargers by 5
Bills (5-3) at Cowboys (4-4)
Dallas is 3–0 on the big screen at Jerry’s House and 1–4 on the road. However, those three wins came against Washington, St. Louis and Seattle, teams with a combined 6–18 record.
Cowboys by 6
Titans (4-4) at Panthers (2-6)
This offseason, Chris Johnson inked a six-year, $53.5 million extension; DeAngelo Williams signed a five-year, $43 million deal. Johnson and Williams have combined to rush for 729 yards and two TDs — less than league-leader LeSean McCoy’s 825 yards and nine scores.
Titans by 1
Texans (6-3) at Buccaneers (4-4)
The banged-up Bucs host a Texans team riding a three-game win streak in which they have outscored opponents 95–33.
Texans by 3
Jaguars (2-6) at Colts (0-9)
Indy is 5–1 in its last six meetings with J’Ville — but that’s with Peyton Manning at QB.
Jaguars by 3
Cardinals (2-6) at Eagles (3-5)
Kevin Kolb’s sprained foot and turf toe may sideline the Eagles’ former “quarterback of the future” in his return to Philadelphia. That leaves backup John Skelton (3–2 record as starter) to tangle with a desperate Eagles squad.
Eagles by 10
Saints (6-3) at Falcons (5-3)
New Orleans and Atlanta split the season series last year, with the road team taking both by a three-point margin — as the Falcons won, 27–24, in Week 3 and the Saints marched, 17–14, in a Week 17 rematch.
Saints by 2
Rams (1-7) at Browns (3-5)
Cleveland has lost four of its last five games, with the lone win coming in arguably the ugliest game of the season, a 6–3 win vs. Seattle.
Browns by 3
Redskins (3-5) at Dolphins (1-7)
Fresh off their first victory of the season, the Fins look to win back-to-back games for the first time since Weeks 1 and 2 last season.
Dolphins by 4
Broncos (3-5) at Chiefs (4-4)
Tim Tebow is 2–1 as a starter this season — with a 2–0 road record and brutal loss to the Lions at home. Arrowhead Stadium, look out.
Chiefs by 1
Ravens (6-2) at Seahawks (2-6)
The league’s No. 2 total defense (279.4 ypg) takes on the No. 29 total offense (296. 1 ypg).
Ravens by 7
Lions (6-2) at Bears (5-3)
The last time the Lions visited Chicago, quarterback Matthew Stafford injured his right throwing shoulder and wideout Calvin Johnson had a go-ahead TD reception reversed by a controversial instant replay in a 19–14 loss.
Lions by 3
Giants (6-2) at 49ers (7-1)
Jim Harbaugh’s Niners are 3–1 in San Fran and a road-tested 4–0 in the Eastern Time Zone. The G-Men have only played on the West Coast twice in six years — winning 41–7 at Seattle last year and losing 42–30 at Seattle in 2006.
49ers by 1
Patriots (5-3) at Jets (5-3)
New England is coming off of back-to-back losses to the Steelers (25–17) and Giants (24–20). Under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Patriots have not lost three straight games since a four-game slide in October 2002.
Patriots by 1
Vikings (2-6) at Packers (8-0)
Aaron Rodgers completed 24-of-30 passes for 335 yards, three TDs and zero INTs for a season-high 146.5 passer rating in Green Bay’s 33–27 win at Minnesota in Week 7.
Packers by 13
Last week: 8-6 // Season: 88-42