The Cowboys are rising up the ranks and eyeing first in the NFC East
The NFL is always a week-to-week league, but on occasion a team otherwise thought to be underachieving, buried or simply not that talented can put together a string of impressive wins and find itself right back among the ranks of playoff contenders.
Coming into Week 12 of the 2011 season, there are more than a few teams that are surging lately, creating the parity the NFL brass so loves to hang their hats on and an interesting playoff picture going forward.
Which teams are the biggest movers and shakers for Week 12? More than one of them have been playing well for a while now, and it shows in the standings.
The Cowboys needed that win on the road in Washington, and they hung in to get it
Five weeks ago, the Dallas Cowboys were 2-3, Tony Romo had a meager 8:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an even poorer idiocy-to-intelligence ratio. The Giants were surging, the Eagles were lurking, Dallas looked cooked.
Since then, the Cowboys are 4-1, Romo has thrown 11 touchdowns and only one interception, and the Cowboys are right back in the fold for the NFC East crown after the Giants dropped a critical game at home to the Eagles on Sunday night.
Along the way the Cowboys have rediscovered and reinvented themselves. They've found a revelation in rookie running back DeMarco Murray, who has averaged more than five yards a carry and has been instrumental in keeping the pressure off Romo and allowing him to play free and easy.
Laurent Robinson has also stepped in seamlessly for an injured Miles Austin to complement the finally healthy Dez Bryant, who is having a stellar sophomore campaign.
The Cowboys defense has also played quite well, allowing only 14.7 points per game over their last three. In short, the Cowboys are peaking at the right time, Romo is playing aggressively but intelligently, and all phases of the game are playing well.
They are still vulnerable, as the Washington game showed, and they will face the Giants twice and Eagles once. The race is still wide open, but the Cowboys have once again asserted themselves as players in the race and are racing up the ranks.
Atlanta is peaking at the right time, much like many of their NFC bretheren
Atlanta is another team that has surged over the last five weeks to re-establish itself as a division contender and wild-card threat. After an early funk in which the Falcons struggled on defense and couldn't find an offensive identity, it's been Michael Turner and Matt Ryan back in effect.
Their only loss in their last five games is a dubious overtime defeat to NFC South rival—and division leader—New Orleans in overtime at home. You may have heard of a certain 4th-and-1 call deep in their own territory in which head coach Mike Smith—he of the oversized onions—decided to go for it.
I suppose he rationalized a Drew Brees-led offense was as comfortable from their own 30-yard line as it was from the Falcons' 30-yard line. Only, when Turner failed to convert the short yardage, New Orleans was basically already in field goal range, and its lead in the NFC South secure.
It was a gutsy call. If the Falcons get it and win, Smith is a genius. However, they didn't, and so he's a fool. That's life in the NFL. So is winning four of five and getting back in the fold. So is beating Tennessee at home and surging up the ranks.
Atlanta is dangerous once again, playing solid defense and rediscovering its offensive identity. The Falcons are all in on the playoff race from here on out, as their recent play attests. If it weren't for a foolish call against New Orleans, we'd be talking about the hottest team in the NFL not named Green Bay or San Francisco.
Instead, that honor goes to...
Hanie is supposedly mobile but he may see a lot of this as he adjusts to the speed of the game
...the Chicago Bears.
With the unfortunate caveat that, while the hottest team in football not named Green Bay or San Francisco, they have just lost their starting quarterback for the foreseeable future and hand the reigns to a guy—Caleb Hanie—who has all of 14 career regular-season pass attempts and who was baptized by fire in the NFC Championship Game against the Packers last season.
It's too bad. The Bears have been playing as well as anyone, and roared up the rankings to assert themselves as a wild-card favorite. At this point it's patently obvious the Packers—barring an Aaron Rodgers injury or otherwise epic immolation—are winning the NFC North, so it's up to the Bears to fight it out for the wild card.
That's a tall order in the NFC this season. Along with fellow ranking-climbers Dallas and Atlanta they have Detroit to deal with, New Orleans, Philadelphia creeping up there—but a huge long shot—and even a suddenly relevant Seahawk team possibly playing spoiler. Things could get interesting.
The Bears have been running the ball extremely well, which should bode well going forward and help protect Hanie, but Jay Cutler is the engine that makes the offense go. A Mike Martz offense is precision based and timing oriented, and that takes familiarity, which takes reps and playing time. Hanie has none of that.
They had poised themselves to take a stranglehold on the wild card and set themselves up for a deep run in the playoffs. Now, the future is uncertain. If Hanie plays well against Oakland this weekend, there is hope. If he plays like a guy who has 14 career attempts against a defense that has intercepted 11 passes and is sixth in the NFL with 28 sacks, it could be a long day and a subsequently long season.
Of course, a twist of irony is shaping up with the recent release of Denver QB—and former Bears signal-caller—Kyle Orton. Orton was part of the trade that brought Cutler to Chicago in a string of mortgage-the-future move by Josh McDaniels thought to have set the Broncos back decades.
Two of NASCAR's finest do their best Tebowing impression
By now I'm sure you've heard of Tim Tebow. He's that guy who's recently had prayer named after him.
You may recall: He led the Broncos to a last-minute victory over the then-woeful Miami Dolphins—which is becoming his forte, ugly though it may be—and then dropped to his knee in a prayer/Thinker pose. Said pose, which to my knowledge has been around since the concept of a divine being, went viral and inspired everyone from those guys above to women in thongs to engage in "Tebowing" or, as I said, to kneel in prayer.
Yes, his name has literally replaced the word "prayer" in relation to the pose of kneeling to pray. But it has to be done in a very intensely thoughtful way, or no dice. Then it's simply good ol' prayer.
This kid is so popular, so transcendent, and so intensely thoughtful that Chuck Norris calls him for marketing advice.
The baffling thing? He's a horrible, horrible NFL quarterback by any conventional measuring stick you can use—except for one, and it's a big one: wins and losses.
When Tebow took over from Kyle Orton as starter, the Broncos were 1-4—as expected, honestly—and dead in the water. Tebow came in and all hell has broken loose, no disrespect intended.
First, the aforementioned fourth-quarter heroics against the Dolphins, which led to the hilarious birth of "Tebowing"—and by extension the merciful and thankful death of "planking"—that started the ball rolling.
Then, a debacle against Detroit. One of the worst performances by a QB in NFL history. Simply appalling. Running a conventional NFL offense, Tebow offends the football senses.
But since coach John Fox admitted as much and tailored the game plan to Tebow's strengths.
The Broncos rushed for more than 250 yards against the Oakland Raiders, with Tebow using the read-option effectively and throwing sparsely but hitting a couple big passes. Tebow kept the Raiders confused all day and it opened up lanes for Willis McGahee. Broncos defense stepped up large in the second half, beginning a trend that still continues. Broncos won.
The Broncos rushed for more than 200 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs with Tebow completing an astoundingly horrid two of eight passes—but one of those passes was a beautiful, pinpoint 60-yard strike to Eric Decker for a touchdown. Tebow played terribly most of the game but made no mistakes, and Denver's defense played well and kept it close. Tebow clinched it late, again. Broncos won.
The Broncos rushed for almost 200 yards against the Jets, their defense stifled the Jets offense and scored six much-needed points for a—sense a theme here?—struggling Tebow and the Broncos offense. Tebow made no mistakes; Denver's defense carried the day and kept it close. Tebow ran in game-winning TD with one minute left. Broncos won.
It's baffling. It's ugly. It's setting offensive football back decades. But it works. And that's why Denver is in second place in its division and climbing the ranks of the NFL.
Schaub was originally thought to have a mild foot injury; it turns out he will miss the rest of the season
The Texans were poised to break through this year. The Titans were rebuilding, and Chis Johnson decided to stop running to stand still and count his money. The Jaguars have a rookie quarterback and little else. And some guy named Peyton Manning got hurt and sent the Colts into a tailspin not seen often from one season to the next.
In fact, the way the Colts look without him, Manning gets my MVP vote for the 2011 season. Who doubts they'd be in the playoff hunt with him instead of 0-10?
Anyhow, we're here to discuss the surging Texans, yet another team on the list of recent success stories that will have to go it the rest of the year without its star quarterback.
The Texans began the season without Arian Foster, the NFL's leading rusher in 2010 and a dynamic back who gives their offense versatility. They coped well enough, and Ben Tate stepped in and filled the void nicely, giving the Texans a sweet one-two punch when Foster did return fully in Week 5.
But by then, All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson was injured. Foster's ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and turn it upfield has alleviated much of that burden, and the Texans, after losing to a Raider team that had just lost Al Davis and probably would've beaten the '85 Bears that day, and losing to a tough Ravens team on the road a week later, have reeled off four straight wins to take control of the AFC South.
The only problem? They need someone to fill the void left by Matt Schaub the way Tate stepped up for Foster, and Foster and Jacoby Jones and a collective effort have stepped up for Andre Johnson.
The irony is that Johnson should be back this week, while Schaub is now on IR. Matt Leinart, a former first-round pick, has struggled in his limited NFL action and is no sure thing behind center. He's saying all the right things, but as the owner of 16 starts in 29 NFL games, under 60 percent completions and a 7:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he has a lot to prove if the Texans are to keep rolling and finally make the playoffs.
They began the year with nothing but good luck, and have run into nothing but bad. Good teams overcome adversity. We shall see if the Texans are finally a good team.
The Steelers are playing well recently also - but that's to be expected I suppose
While there are other teams that have played well and have nice little win streaks going—the Steelers come to mind, and even the Seahawks have nice back-to-back wins—these are the teams that stand out the most and mean the most in the big picture of playoff implications.
The Steelers do have a profound effect on the playoff picture, but unless Ben Roethlisberger's thumb is more serious than he's letting on I think the Steelers and Ravens come out as expected, and the Bengals fade as they continue to battle but ultimately remain a year away due to youth, not talent.
The NFC is looking extremely tough, but the AFC is simply a jumbled mess. Nobody really wants to take control of anything just yet, and as such as many as nine teams are still reasonably entertaining playoff aspirations.
It doesn't get much better than that.