Articles By Nathan Rush
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
At halftime of the 2011 NFL season and the stretch run about to start, Athlon Sports takes a look at the award-worthy performers of this year’s first half:
Most Valuable Player
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
The Super Bowl XLV MVP is on pace to set the single-season records for yards, completion percentage and passer rating. Through eight games, Rodgers has thrown for 2,619 yards, 24 TDs and three INTs with a 129.1 rating, while also scrambling for another 127 yards and two trips to the end zone for the undefeated Packers. Brett Favre won three MVPs during his heyday in Green Bay, A-Rodg’s award-winning run starts this year.
Offensive Player of the Year
Fred Jackson, RB, Bills
The heart and soul of Buffalo’s offense, Jackson has rushed for 803 yards (5.4 ypc) and six TDs, while hauling in 30 catches for 391 yards (13.0 ypc). Philly’s LeSean McCoy, Chicago’s Matt Forte and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson also deserve consideration for this award.
Defensive Player of the Year
Jared Allen, DE, Vikings
On pace to break Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record (22.5), Allen has tallied 12.5 sacks and three forced fumbles through eight games. The Jets’ Darrelle Revis (four INTs for 184 yards, TD) is also making a strong case for himself.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
This has become a two-horse race between Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton and Newton, who has thrown for 2,393 yards, 11 TDs and nine INTs while rushing for 319 yards and a rookie-QB record-tying seven TDs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals
If there were a Special Teams Rookie of the Year, Peterson (three punt return TDs) would be the clear winner. As it is, the athletic corner gets the nod for an award that is still very much up in the air.
Comeback Player of the Year
Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
Finally healthy, the strong-armed Stafford has thrown for 2,179 yards, a career-high 19 TDs and four INTs while leading the Lions to 6–2 start and a realistic shot at their first trip to the playoffs since 1999.
Coach of the Year
Jim Harbaugh, 49ers
Postgame handshakes aside, the former Stanford boss and brother of Ravens coach John Harbaugh has been a difference-maker in the Bay Area — firing up the Niners’ defense and calming quarterback Alex Smith.
Eli Manning, QB, Giants
The Super Bowl XLII rematch was deja vu all over again for the G-Men. Four seasons ago, Manning found Plaxico Burress on a 13-yard TD pass with 35 seconds to play for a 17–14 upset of the then 18–0 Patriots. This time around, Manning hit Jake Ballard for a one-yard score to take a 24–20 edge with 15 ticks on the clock, capping an eight-play, 80-yard game-winning drive. Although Manning’s final stat line was not off-the-charts (20-of-39 passes for 250 yards, two TDs and one INT), his heroic final drive could not have been better. As defensive end and team captain Justin Tuck said afterwards, “You can’t spell elite without Eli.”
Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals
It was a good weekend to be an LSU Tiger. One day after Les Miles’ club won the “Game of the Century” over Alabama, 9–6 in overtime, the Bayou Bengals’ most recent top-five pick had the best game of his young NFL career. The rookie cornerback snagged his second INT of the season, winning a one-on-one jump ball against Brandon Lloyd on an underthrown pass by Sam Bradford. But the highlight of the night was Peterson’s 99-yard walk-off punt return TD — his third return TD of the year — giving the Cardinals a 19–13 overtime win over the Rams.
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons
The rookie out of Alabama hauled in three catches for 131 yards and two TDs, while also adding two carries for 33 yards on the ground during a 31–7 blowout of the winless Colts. Jones had scoring grabs of 50 and 80 yards — showing off the big-play ability that prompted the Falcons to trade their first- (No. 27 overall), second- (No. 59) and fourth-round (No. 124) picks in 2011, as well as their first- and fourth-rounders in 2012, to the Browns in exchange for the No. 6 overall pick and a chance to add Jones to an already impressive offense.
Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens
Baltimore swept Pittsburgh for the first time since 2006, rallying for a 23–20 Week 9 win on Sunday night after an impressive 35–7 Week 1 victory to start the season. Flacco led a 13-play, 92-yard game-winning drive that ended with a 26-yard scoring strike to rookie Torrey Smith with eight seconds remaining. Smith went from goat to great after dropping a sure TD five plays earlier and being called for holding on the first play of the night, negating a 76-yard trip to the end zone by Ray Rice. The Ravens’ road win was especially sweet considering that two of their past three seasons have ended in playoff losses at Heinz Field.
Stanford’s Andrew Luck may be the best quarterback prospect since the forward pass was popularized. Or at least since Peyton Manning came out in 1998. Maybe since fellow Cardinal John Elway was drafted in 1983.
LSU at Alabama is the game of the century. The Tigers and Tide are clearly the top two teams in the country. Les Miles and Nick Saban have the most NFL talent, the best athletes and the scariest defenses in the land.
How great would it be to have everyone’s All-American take the ultimate test in a bowl game against either LSU or Alabama in his final collegiate game?
The Cardinal have a shot at playing the winner of LSU-Alabama in the BCS title game if they can survive Oregon (Nov. 12) and Notre Dame (Nov. 26) visits on the Farm. But there is an outside chance Luck could still square off against the LSU-Alabama loser if Oregon takes down Stanford and the Ducks fly to Pasadena as the Pac-12 rep in the Rose Bowl.
Luck has a 28–5 record as a starter at Stanford, but has never played a team from the SEC, and definitely hasn’t faced the type of next-level power and speed that both LSU and Alabama bring to the field every Saturday.
Win or lose, Luck vs. LSU or Alabama would be the perfect parting shot for the hyperbolic prospect.
Several NFL fan bases are hoping to “Suck for Luck” — or lose as many games as possible — in order to land the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and a chance to select the 6'4", 235-pound franchise quarterback whose off-the-charts measurables and intangibles are rarely seen even once in a generation.
The 22-year-old Houston native is the son of a former NFL quarterback, current West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck. He was also mentored by another former NFL signal-caller, former Cardinal coach and current San Francisco 49ers boss Jim Harbaugh.
Extremely advanced for his age, the fourth-year junior calls his own plays — a la Manning — for first-year Stanford coach David Shaw. Under the leadership of Luck, the Cardinal have won a school-record 16 straight games, which is also the nation’s longest active winning streak.
Last season, Luck was runner-up to Auburn quarterback Cam Newton in Heisman Trophy voting after completing 70.7 percent of his passes for 3,338 yards, 32 TDs and eight INTs — capping a 12–1 season with a 40–12 win over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. This season, Luck has completed 71.9 percent of his passes for 2,218 yards, 23 TDs and four INTs, leading Stanford to an 8–0 start.
Most recently, Luck carried Stanford to a 56–48 triple-overtime win over USC at the L.A. Coliseum. Although the Trojans have an NFL coaching staff and a defense led by Tampa 2 legend Monte Kiffin, this is not Pete Carroll’s wall-to-wall first-round roster at USC. Even Lane Kiffin, whose SEC coaching career lasted just one season at Tennessee, would have to admit the Trojans don’t have the horses that the Bayou Bengals and Crimson Tide do.
In one of his more impressive outings, Luck completed 29-of-40 passes for 330 yards, three TDs and one INT, which was returned for a pick-six that gave Southern Cal a 34–27 lead with 3:08 left in the fourth quarter. But Luck rallied the troops, marching the Cardinal down the field on a 12-play, 76-yard drive to tie the game at 34–34 with 38 seconds remaining.
“We put the ball in our quarterback’s hands, put it on his shoulders,” said Shaw, “and the kid came through.”
Luck’s maturity and ability to handle adversity have fans across the NFL crossing their fingers for a passer and person that those around him can’t seem to praise enough.
“I’m running out of things to say. He’s like a vitamin. Once a day. Once a day, he does something that makes you say, ‘Wow.’ It’s been ‘once a day’ for four years,” said Shaw, who worked with the redshirt junior quarterback as an offensive coordinator before taking over as Stanford’s head coach.
“You get tired of saying, ‘Nice throw. You get tired of saying, ‘Good read.’ You get tired of saying, ‘Nice job in the pocket.’ ‘Nice job escaping.’ ‘Good decision.’ You know he gets tired of hearing it. We get to the point where I try not to compliment him too much. The problem is, there are not a lot of flaws.”
Phil Simms would disagree. The Super Bowl XXI MVP came as close to ripping Luck as anyone has when he spoke with Adam Schein and Rich Gannon on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
“I just don’t see big time NFL throws. I don’t care what anybody says. I’ve watched a lot of him. He never takes it and rips it in there. And you can say what you want but, man, you’ve got to be able to crease that ball every once in a while,” said Simms, a CBS analyst and father of two quarterbacks, Chris and Matt.
“There’s not a lot of rotation on the ball and there’s not a tremendous amount of power. Not that you need to have that power arm. I’m not saying you’ve got to have that exclusively but, man, it sure helps when you can do that because there’s four or five plays a game it is about arm strength. …
“What’s he going to do to match what they say he can do?”
How about marching the ball on an LSU or Alabama defense? Or zipping the pill past a closing first-round cornerback like Morris Claiborne or Dre Kirkpatrick? Or upsetting the heavily-favored Tigers or Tide? Maybe even for the BCS national title?
It’s early; but that could be the next “game of the century.”
by Nathan Rush
Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh is not a dirty player. Don’t believe the hype.
Suh’s meeting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell during the Lions’ bye week says more about the state of the league’s inconsistent officiating, ruling and fining systems than it does about the perceived reckless play of the second-year All-Pro defensive tackle.
Suh is, by all accounts, the premier player at his position. He is reestablishing — if not redefining — what it means to be an elite interior defensive lineman. In doing so, he has clearly become the anti-Albert Haynesworth.
There should be no blurred line when making a distinction between King Ndamukong and the likes of Fat Albert, a convicted face-stomper who, although dirty, did once set a $100-million standard for 4-3 three-technique tackles — coincidentally, playing for Suh’s current coach Jim Schwartz, who was then the Titans’ defensive coordinator.
No doubt Suh has a non-stop motor and a mean streak; but if he is being labeled a “dirty” player, then there is something wrong with the NFL, not Suh. Outside of the entire Pittsburgh Steelers defense, Suh has been enemy No. 1 in Commissioner Goodell’s attempt to “clean up” pro football.
Since being selected No. 2 overall out of Nebraska in 2010, Suh has been fined a grand total of $42,500 — chunking $20,000 for giving Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton the redheaded stepchild treatment this preseason; $15,000 for a right forearm shiver on Chicago’s Jay Cutler in Week 13 last year; and $7,500 for a facemask-headlock slam of Cleveland’s overmatched old man Jake Delhomme last preseason.
Upon further review, all of those fines came on plays that were obviously aggressive and violent but certainly not “dirty” — at least by the traditional NFL definition of the word. Crotch-punching Conrad Dobler was downright below-the-belt “dirty.” Helmet-to-helmet, late-hitting, pile-spearing Rodney Harrison was notoriously “dirty.” Head-kicking, finger-snapping, face-spitting, jaw-breaking Bill Romanowski personified “dirty.” But Suh? No way.
Suh is a 6'4", 307-pound, 24-year-old physical freak ready to break the mold. As strange as it sounds, he is a man among boys even in the NFL, where the biggest, strongest, fastest and meanest reside. There has not been an athlete with the combination of size, speed, strength, technique and ferocious force that Suh possesses since the late, great Reggie White.
“I’m just a different breed. I hate to say that, but it’s kind of like, no athlete in the NFL is like any other,” explained Suh. “But there’s guidelines that everybody needs to follow.”
Suh’s timing couldn’t be worse. He walked onto the NFL gridiron just as the established rules of the sport were essentially being reinvented on the fly by Commissioner Goodell. The type of unabated physicality that made Suh a Heisman Trophy finalist with the Huskers was and is in the process of being minimized.
Protecting quarterbacks and ball-carriers is top priority; Suh will have to fall in line. And he’s trying. During his off week, Suh went to New York to watch film with Goodell, in an effort to clarify what about No. 90’s game is considered “dirty” by both the zebras who throw yellow flags between the lines and the zoot suits who levy fines with super-slow-mo, second-guessed certainty after the game is over.
Even though his meeting with Goodell went well, Suh is well aware he hasn’t written his last check to the league office. He is a target, ironically, because of his unique abilities to seek and destroy his own chosen targets. Blessed with physical capabilities matched by few humans — remember, the man ran a 4.98 in the 40-yard dash, posted 32 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press and skied for a 35.5-inch vertical at the Scouting Combine — Suh knows all about playing by his own rules. And that sword cuts both ways.
“You look at Tom Brady. When he gets hit, you always wonder if there’s going to be a flag. There’s certain things that may be called for him that may not be called for other quarterbacks just because of his stature or whatever, how he is in the league,” Suh vented.
“That’s the same thing with defensive players. I think my hits may look a little different because of the type of strength and athleticism that I have, compared to some other defensive linemen. It’s just the way the world works.”
Then again, being the best has always been a “dirty” game full of name-calling from those who can’t keep up. But don’t expect Suh to slow down.
“I’m not going to change the way I play,” said Suh. “I feel that the way I’m playing and the way I have played in the past is continuing to play within the rules.”
by Nathan Rush
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 9, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Ravens (5-2) at Steelers (6-2)
The most physical rivalry in football resumes on Sunday night. Last season, these AFC North foes played a pair of defensive battles, both of which were won by three points by the road team. Baltimore won 17–14 in Week 4, Pittsburgh won 13–10 in Week 13. This season the Ravens have struggled on the road, while the Steelers are unbeaten at home and fresh off a 25–17 statement win over the Patriots.
Steelers by 3
Jets (4-3) at Bills (5-2)
Despite being winless on the road, the Jets are just one game out of first place in the AFC East with the two teams ahead of them — the Bills and Patriots — up next on the schedule. The Bills are 4–0 at “home” this season, going 3–0 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., and 1–0 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Bills by 2
Browns (3-4) at Texans (5-3)
If this is in fact Houston’s breakout season, coach Gary Kubiak’s club must take care of its business against a scrappy Cleveland squad.
Texans by 9
Dolphins (0-7) at Chiefs (4-3)
Kansas City got lucky against San Diego on Monday night; winless Miami just wants Luck.
Chiefs by 5
Seahawks (2-5) at Cowboys (3-4)
Tony Romo has thrown seven TDs and six INTs (with one fumble at the goal line) in four losses, four TDs and one INT in three wins. The Boys go as Romo does, just like Jerry Jones promised.
Cowboys by 10
49ers (6-1) at Redskins (3-4)
No West Coast bias for Niners, who carry a 4–0 record in the Eastern Time Zone this season.
49ers by 6
Falcons (4-3) at Colts (0-8)
Indy has lost by a combined score of 78–63 in three home games. On the road, the Colts have been broken by a combined 174–58 tally.
Falcons by 11
Broncos (2-5) at Raiders (4-3)
One week after being thrown to the Lions, Tim Tebow enters the Black Hole hoping to regain the magic touch he had in his heroic comeback at Miami and his entire career at Florida.
Raiders by 7
Buccaneers (4-3) at Saints (5-3)
Drew Brees threw for 383 yards, one TD and three INTs during a 26–20 loss at Tampa Bay in Week 6. Three weeks later, Brees has a chance to redeem himself in an NFC South showdown that will determine which team takes the halftime lead in one of the league’s best divisions.
Saints by 6
Bengals (5-2) at Titans (4-3)
Cincy’s Cedric Benson will return from a one-game suspension. The real question is whether or not Tennessee’s missing runner, Chris Johnson, will return to form — or continue being serenaded with boos by the Music City crowd.
Titans by 2
Giants (5-2) at Patriots (5-2)
These two teams have met in Week 4 of the preseason every year since 2005. No one remembers those meaningless matchups. But the last two times the G-Men and Pats have played when it mattered are hard to forget. There was the 38–35 classic from Week 17 in 2007, when New England capped its perfect 16–0 regular season. And, of course, a 17–14 New York win in Super Bowl XLII shortly after.
Patriots by 7
Packers (7-0) at Chargers (4-3)
Fresh off a bye, California kid Aaron Rodgers returns to the West Coast to take on a flickering Chargers club working on short rest after a devastating Monday night loss in Kansas City. The past two seasons, Green Bay has been extremely sharp following its bye — outscoring opponents by a combined 57–3.
Packers by 7
Rams (1-6) at Cardinals (1-6)
St. Louis football migrates to the desert once again, as the franchise formerly known as the Los Angeles Rams takes on the old St. Louis Cardinals. These are decidedly different one-win teams. The Rams just won; the Cardinals are trying to stop a six-game losing streak.
Cardinals by 3
Bears (4-3) at Eagles (3-4)
Two of the league’s most unpredictable and polarizing passers — Chicago’s Jay Cutler and Philadelphia’s Mike Vick — take the field in a make-or-break game on Monday night.
Eagles by 7
Last week: 9-4 / Season: 81-35
LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles
Philly improved its record to 13–0 following a bye week under coach Andy Reid, with a 34–7 statement win over NFC East rival Dallas under the lights on Sunday night. “Shady” led the way, with 30 carries for a career-high 185 yards and two trips to the end zone. The Eagles outgained the Boys 495-to-267 yards, won the time of possession battle 42:09-to-17:51, snapped a five-game losing streak at Lincoln Financial Field and shut up Big D coordinator Rob Ryan — who previously called the team “all-hype” before admitting he was “outcoached” by Reid following the lopsided loss.
Steven Jackson, RB, Rams
After watching the hometown Cardinals win the World Series on Friday night, the Rams — who wore vintage 1999 throwback jerseys from the “Greatest Show on Turf” Super Bowl days — went out and earned their first win of the year, an improbable 31–21 upset over the Saints Sunday afternoon. Jackson had 25 carries for 159 yards and two TDs, his first 150-plus yard effort and multi-TD game since 2008. With his 28th career 100-yard effort, Jackson passed Marshall Faulk for second in franchise history and now trails only Eric Dickerson (38).
Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
A rookie quarterback shootout between the Vikings’ Christian Ponder and Panthers’ Cam Newton quickly became the A.P. show. Peterson bulldozed his way to 162 yards from scrimmage and two TDs — with 21 carries for 86 yards and a 9-yard score on the ground, as well as five catches for 76 yards and a 19-yard TD through the air — during a 24–21 win at Carolina. The NFL’s leading rusher and highest paid runner, Peterson has 798 yards and nine TDs through eight games so far this season.
Cliff Avril, DE, Lions
Tim Tebow was thrown to the Lions on Sunday and it wasn’t pretty. Detroit ended its two-game losing streak with a 45–10 blowout at Denver, in a game that featured several highlights — including Chris Houston’s 100-yard pick-six and Stephen Tulloch’s “Tebowing” celebration after sacking the Broncos quarterback. But Avril had perhaps the best overall game, recording two of the Lions’ seven sacks of Tebow, along with two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery returned 24 yards for a TD. Detroit’s defense applied constant pressure to Tebow, who only converted 2-of-17 on third and fourth downs.
by Nathan Rush
Albert Pujols’ last game as a St. Louis Cardinal is Game 7 of the World Series. The stage is set for a Michael Jordan or John Elway hero’s exit. But instead of retiring a champion, Pujols will dive into the free-agent pool in search of a 10-year, $300 million contract.
Still, winning a second World Series would be a walk-off home run for Pujols, who will be pursued this offseason by the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, Miami Marlins, Washington Nationals, Texas Rangers and any other team that could use a first baseman whose average season over his first 11 years includes batting .328 with a 1.037 OPS, 40 HRs, 121 RBIs and 117 runs over 155 games. But he’s only won two Gold Gloves, so he’s not perfect.
Pujols is not an A-Rod regular season fantasy player who disappears in the clutch, either.
During the Cardinals’ unbelievable postseason run, Pujols has hit .364 with a 1.174 OPS, five HRs, 16 RBIs and 13 runs in 17 games. He single-handedly won Game 3 of the World Series for St. Louis, going 5-for-6 with three HRs, six RBIs and four runs in a 16–7 blowout at Texas. In the process, Pujols tied Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson for the World Series single-game home run record.
In St. Louis’ surreal Game 6 comeback, Pujols doubled in the bottom of the ninth inning to start a rally that ended with the three-time MVP and Lance Berkman crossing the plate to tie the game 7–7 following a David Freese triple. Pujols’ only hit and run-scored in the game came with Derek Jeter-type timing. Freese was the hero, for sure. But without Pujols, the Cardinals don’t pull off an 11-inning, 10–9 win for the ages.
What more do Cardinals fans want? Another World Series win? For Pujols to re-sign? Let’s not get greedy — or say that’s what Albert is.
Pujols was the 402nd overall pick of the 1999 MLB Draft. Since breaking into the bigs in 2001, he’s crushed for 445 HRs and 1,329 RBIs. The team that signs Pujols won’t get that type of production. They’ll curse the 40-year-old making $30 million a year and not producing in a major market. As painful as the thought of losing Pujols may seem to Cardinals fans, his next breakup will be worse.
Tonight, Pujols is in St. Louis, in his prime, with a chance to win the World Series. It doesn’t get any better than that.
“This is pretty special,” said Pujols. “This is what baseball is all about. Having an opportunity to go to a Game 7 in a World Series is unbelievable. Amazing. I don’t even know what to say.”
Say thank you, St. Louis. Put the champagne on ice and enjoy Pujols’ last game as a Cardinal. Win or lose, re-sign or walk, Albert Pujols has been worth every penny.
Whether he continues to be is another story.
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 8, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Patriots (5-1) at Steelers (5-2)
After this week’s Bibi Jones TwitPic drama, Rob Gronkowski is looking to repeat his 2010 three-TD effort against Pittsburgh. It could happen. Bill Belichick has a 9–2 record the week after a regular-season bye during his reign as coach in New England. Tom Brady has a 6–1 career record against the Steelers — including a 39–26 win at Pittsburgh in Week 10 last year. Brady threw for 350 yards and three TDs in his most recent matchup with the Steel Curtain. This year’s Pittsburgh defense has done less bending (9th in total yards) and more breaking (19th in points allowed).
Patriots by 5
Dolphins (0-6) at Giants (4-2)
Tony Sparano’s last stand heads to New York, where the Miami “Suck for (Andrew) Luck” campaign should continue. It’s unlikely the Dolphins losing streak will end against the Giants, who are well-rested coming off their bye week.
Giants by 10
Jaguars (2-5) at Texans (4-3)
These AFC South rivals are fresh off of huge wins, as Jacksonville stunned Baltimore, 12–7, on Monday night and Houston steamrolled at Tennessee, 41–7, to take sole possession of first place in the division. This is a must-win for the Texans, who are aiming for their first playoff berth since entering the league in 2002.
Texans by 10
Colts (0-7) at Titans (3-3)
On the flip side, these AFC South foes are both looking to bounce back from embarrassing losses, with Indianapolis losing to New Orleans by 55 and Tennessee falling to Houston by 34. Both teams are also missing their best player. Peyton Manning’s rehabbing a neck injury; Chris Johnson’s diagnosis is less certain.
Titans by 11
Vikings (1-6) at Panthers (2-5)
A showdown of rookie quarterbacks pits Minnesota’s Christian Ponder against Carolina’s Cam Newton. This will be Ponder’s first start on the road, while Newton carries a 2–2 record at home — losing close calls against the Packers (30–23) and Saints (30–27).
Panthers by 3
Saints (5-2) at Rams (0-6)
New Orleans’ No. 1-ranked scoring offense (34.1 ppg) hits the road to take on St. Louis’ 29th-ranked scoring defense (28.5 ppg) and 32nd-ranked scoring offense (9.3 ppg). The question is whether or not the Saints can one-up last week’s 55-point beatdown of the Colts.
Saints by 15
Cardinals (1-5) at Ravens (4-2)
Kevin Kolb is walking into the lion’s den. Or, an angry Ray Lewis’ house, same difference. The Ravens have questions that need answering following a shocking 12–7 loss to the Jaguars on Monday night. Kolb is headed to the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.
Ravens by 10
Cowboys (3-3) at Eagles (2-4)
Turn on the heat lamp and pressure cooker when Tony Romo and Michael Vick square off under the lights in prime time on Sunday night. This will be the first head-to-head matchup of America’s two most scrutinized quarterbacks; the road team won both games last year, with Philly winning Week 14 and Dallas in Week 17.
Eagles by 3
Lions (5-2) at Broncos (2-4)
Matthew Stafford limps to Denver, where Tim Tebow is on top of the Mile High mountain after his first start of the season. Detroit is on a two-game slide, however, and needs to end Tebow’s feel-good story in order to restore its own.
Lions by 4
Redskins (3-3) at Bills (4-2)
Buckle up, Toronto. Washington and Buffalo are ready to invade the Rogers Centre for the fourth regular-season game of a five-year deal. The Bills are 0–3 north of the border, however, with close losses to the Dolphins (16–3) in 2008, Jets (19–13) in ’09 and Bears (22–19) in ’10.
Bills by 5
Browns (3-3) at 49ers (5-1)
Braylon Edwards returns from injury just in time to face his former Cleveland club. Postgame? This pregame could get ugly.
49ers by 8
Bengals (4-2) at Seahawks (2-4)
Seattle must regroup vs. Cincy after last week’s 6–3 loss, which featured too many mistakes by the lake in Cleveland.
Bengals by 1
Chargers (4-2) at Chiefs (3-3)
Last season’s Monday double-header nightcap was a barn burner, with Kansas City stealing a 21–14 upset. But San Diego got its revenge, 31–0, in the Week 14 rematch.
Chargers by 5
by Nathan Rush
The Oakland Raiders did not overpay for Carson Palmer — they made the right move by trading for him.
Forget the 8-for-21, 116-yard, three-INT, one-pick-six performance in the second half of a 28–0 loss to the archrival Kansas City Chiefs in Palmer’s home debut. If Chris Johnson can get a six-game “preseason” after his contract holdout, then Palmer can get a two-quarter warm up refresher course.
After all, Palmer had just three practices with the Raiders under his belt and hadn’t played an NFL game since Jan. 2.
“It definitely is an uncomfortable situation to be in but it’s a good situation just to get your feet wet,” said Palmer, explaining his mindset entering the lopsided game trailing 21–0 in the third quarter.
“It’s been awhile since I played football. And to get the few reps that I got under my belt in live action, when the bullets were flying, will definitely benefit me when we have Denver coming in two weeks (after the Week 8 bye).”
That’s a solid reaction from a grounded veteran who has seen it all — from down days at USC under Paul Hackett, to laying the foundation for a Trojan dynasty under Pete Carroll, to carrying the Bengals from obscurity to mediocrity. Palmer has the easy-going California cool and the physical tools the Raiders need right now.
“Just win, baby.” That was the late, great Al Davis’ mantra for a reason; that is what the NFL, and especially the Oakland Raiders are all about.
Reject the popular opinion that the Oakland organization was robbed East Oakland-style. The Raiders definitely did not give up too much for Palmer, a 31-year-old two-time Pro Bowler who was wasting away due to the Cincinnati Bengals’ refusal to trade the quarterback who made their franchise relevant earlier this decade.
Remember, Cincinnati went to the playoffs twice (2005, ’09) in Palmer’s six seasons as the starter. Prior to drafting the 6'5", 236-pound Heisman Trophy winner from USC with the No. 1 overall pick in 2003, the Bungles had not made the postseason since 1990.
But who’s keeping score? Obviously not Mike Brown; but certainly the Raiders’ front office.
When Oakland traded for Palmer, the team had a 4–2 record in a wide-open AFC West division that includes the bi-polar San Diego Chargers, imploding Kansas City Chiefs and the John Elway-Tim Tebow soap opera that is the Denver Broncos.
Coming off of an 8–8 season — the Raiders’ first non-losing campaign since 2002 — hopes were high for Hue Jackson’s team. Then, quarterback Jason Campbell went down with a broken collarbone and the Silver-and-Bleak reality of starting backup Kyle Boller or rookie supplemental draft pick Terrelle Pryor set in. Action was necessary.
“It’s a good young team. It’s still hungry,” said Palmer, assessing his new club’s potential. “We have really good coaching and we have really good players.”
The Raiders needed a signal-caller and didn’t want to wait until the 2012 NFL Draft — which is expected to include Stanford’s Andrew Luck, USC’s Matt Barkley and Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, just to name a few — to acquire one.
Plus, Oakland hasn’t had an eye for quarterbacks lately. Since winning Super Bowl XVIII following the 1983 season, the Raiders have drafted JaMarcus Russell (No. 1 overall), Andrew Walter, Marques Tuiasosopo, Billy Joe Hobert, Todd Marinovich, Major Harris, Jeff Francis, Steve Beuerlein, Rusty Hilger and Randy Essington.
Oakland’s hand was forced when Campbell was lost for the year. Instead of sitting in the Black Hole taking losses, the Raiders went all-in by trading their 2012 first-rounder and a conditional 2013 pick for Palmer.
It was bold. It was right. Davis would be proud.
“One thing I know about Coach (Davis), he loved tall, athletic quarterbacks from USC. That’s for sure,” said Jackson. “One thing he loves, guys that can throw the ball down the field. And this man can. I think he’d have been very excited, very happy.”