Riffs, rants, observations and dissenting opinions from the voices in my head: Here's a warped and dented take on this weekend's games featuring extra corporate jargon and Merle Haggard, by request.
Note: All times listed are Eastern, lines are via Odds Shark, and game capsules are listed in the order you should read them.
Eagles at Cardinals
Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
Line: Cardinals -2.5
"Culture wins football. Culture will beat scheme every day." — Chip Kelly
That quote is one Eagles Super Bowl victory away from joining Vince Lombardi's "Winning isn't everything, but the will to win is everything" as one of pro football's top philosophical musings. At first hearing, the quote sounds very next-gen, postmodern, even Oregonian: Your grasping, tactical approach to betterment is no match for our organic gardens, vintage stereo equipment and recumbent bicycles.
The quote is also a little disingenuous coming from the NFL's cutting-edge tactician. It's like the tech industry guru who designs a cellphone app that makes supermodels parachute into your driveway claiming the real secret to his success was giving his employees flex scheduling and a pool table in the break room. Dude, a couple of innovative ideas don't make you Cyrus the Great.
Kelly did not coin his "culture trumps strategy" slogan, and it is not New Age Oregonian at all. It's a buzzy bit of business logic made popular by authors like Nilofer Merchant before Kelly gave it a pigskin makeover. It's one of those wonderfully vague big-picture concepts that administrators can throw around while trying to avoid making actual decisions. Let's synergize our best practices and core competencies around the "culture-trumps-strategy" paradigm, they say. Then, they gut the company's medical coverage and forbid displaying family pictures within office cubicles.
Gosh, it seems like only three weeks ago that an important Eagles starter complained after a victory that he was plum tuckered out from Kelly's overwork; now Kelly is Dale Carnegie-meets-Lao Tzu for the Kale Age. Culture may trump strategy, but culture also informs strategy, and culture without strategy is, I dunno, Woodstock.
What has made Kelly's Eagles rebuild so fascinating and successful (so far) has been the symbiosis of culture and strategy: Team policies, practice schedules and player acquisition models all mesh with the no-huddle, zone-running on-field system. It's a top-down reconceptualization of…oh dear, there goes the corporate jargon again.
The Eagles are not alone at the vanguard of the NFL's culture-scheme revolution. The Cardinals have adopted the personalities of coaches Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles as thoroughly as the non-Cary Williams members of the Eagles have invested in Kellyfarianism. The Cardinals should not be 5-1; they have relied on backup quarterbacks and injured quarterbacks, and they have been reduced to throwing whoever is available onto the field along the front seven. But Bowles keeps blitzing, Arians keeps calling bombs and the Cardinals keep getting the job done.
Culture or scheme? Chicken or egg? Let's not forget personnel: All the read-options, safety blitzes, protein shakes and motivational posters in the world won't help a team that's running out of talented players. The Eagles are deeper and more talented than the Cardinals right now, even with their offensive line still banged up after the bye. (The Cardinals front seven, as mentioned above, is in equally bad shape). Of course, if the Eagles are healthier, have better talent and better luck, you can always credit the culture: That's how corporate executives do it all the time.
Positive thinking does not always result in success, but success always results in positive thinking. Say, that's a heck of a slogan. I wonder if it's taken?
Prediction: Eagles 34, Cardinals 27
Packers at Saints
Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
Drew Brees needs a catchphrase. "Relax" worked wonders for Aaron Rodgers. "Omaha" helped define Peyton Manning's second career. Tom Brady has "Where's the flag?!" Ben Roethlisberger has "Spoon!" Jay Cutler has "Screw you, I don't have a catchphrase," Tony Romo has "Whoops!" and Joe Flacco has "Hello, my name is Joe Flacco." But Drew Brees doesn't have that crucial hook, something to define his approach to the season, something for out-of-town reporters to ask exhaustingly silly questions about.
The best quarterback catchphrases, such as "Relax" and "Omaha," are short and harken back to some old Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Counting Crows song. The song is essential, because we can then knowingly tweet song lyrics whenever appropriate. ("Hey Peyton: It's the fourth quarter, so start turning the grain into the ground" … "Hey Aaron: Shoot it in the right direction, making 'making it' your intention.") Since Brees is a country music fan, let's pick out a Merle Haggard song title and make it his catch phrase.
Hmmm, "Okie from Muskogee" doesn't make much sense. "Mama Tried" doesn't really fit the Brees zeitgeist. "Bar Room Buddies" is reserved for Johnny Manziel. "Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room" was the theme song for Bountygate, so that's out. "Kentucky Gambler" does not work for a guy from Texas who doesn't gamble much. Wait: "Movin' On!"
That should be Brees' catchphrase: Movin' On. The Saints are movin' on from their awful start. Injuries piling up on offense? Best years appear to be behind you? Keep movin' on. Either that, or just relax.
Brees vs. Rodgers is the Brady-Manning undercard that never gained any traction. The pair has only met three times, never in the playoffs, which is remarkable since both quarterbacks are usually in the playoffs. They have combined for 19 touchdowns in three meetings, and the "defensive duel" of the three games was a 28-27 Packers win in 2012, so we can expect some scoreboard pinball. The Packers will win, in part because Brees' pass protection has crumbled lately, making him a branded man.
Prediction: Packers 35, Saints 31
Colts at Steelers
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Line: Colts -3
The Colts rank first in the NFL in yards per game (452.9), second to the Broncos in points (30.9 to 31.5), first in time of possession (36:56), third to the Lions and 49ers in yards allowed per game (311.1), tied for third in sacks (21), first in passing yards (329.6 per game), first in passing touchdowns (19) and fifth in passing yards allowed per game (214.4, all rankings entering Week 8). If this keeps up, we may have to start mentioning them once in a while.
It's wise to reserve judgment on the Colts. No one doubts they are playoff-bound, but Sunday's blowout of the Bengals was the first indication that they may have climbed above the AFC's second tier. We won't be certain of the Colts' true status until they host the Patriots on November 16. Until then, back-to-back road games against contenders of yesteryear (Steelers, then Giants) represent a fresh pair of minor hurdles for a high-flying team.
The Steelers came back to beat the Texans on Monday night with the help of big plays from Lawrence Timmons (12 tackles, one sack), James Harrison (three quarterback hits), Brett Keisel (interception) and Troy Polamalu (fumble recovery), plus reliable standbys Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. Um…do the Steelers have anybody on the roster who did not play for the 2010 Super Bowl team?
Yes, yes, youngsters Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant also made contributions. But when a team needs trickery, fluky-bounce turnovers and a class reunion to beat Ryan Fitzpatrick at home, it's not the sign of a turnaround. It's the sign of a last hurrah.
Prediction: Colts 27, Steelers 17
Seahawks at Panthers
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Seahawks -5.5
- Jermaine Kearse: A third-wideout type who blocks hard and has a nice personality. Kearse is exactly the kind of player who is invaluable off the bench because of his versatility but a huge liability as an every-down starter because of his limitations. Currently an every-down starter.
- Robert Turbin: Barely adequate (but dependable and hardworking) changeup running back who suddenly became a fullback when Derrick Coleman broke a foot during pregame warmups last week. "I'm like, 'I know what the fullback does,' " Turbin said (via The Seattle Times) of his sudden position shift. " He blocks for me so it helps to know what he's doing." Turbin also knows what a dentist does and has seen one in action; no word yet on whether Pete Carroll will allow him to remove his wisdom teeth.
- Christine Michael: A powerful Lynch surrogate with injury issues and a lack of special teams versatility, Michael exists to give Seahawks fans hope for the post-Lynch near-future while giving fantasy football experts someone to obsess endlessly about during May minicamps.
- Paul Richardson: Second-round pick and the likely heir to a vastly reduced Percy Harvin role. Richardson is blurry fast but twiggy thin. He also has a good arm and completed a 75-yard pass in college, so expect an option pass trick play at some point. Probably a needlessly complicated one.
- Luke Willson and Cooper Helfet: A fifth-round pick last year, Willson missed last week's loss to the Rams but should return to share tight end duties with Helfet. The Ontario native signed with the Blue Jays before playing a significant role as a spot starter and seam stretcher last year. Willson's name has the most useful second L ever: He cannot be confused with the actor on the Internet or his own quarterback on the field. Helfet, who caught a highlight-reel touchdown last week, started his college career with a Johns Hopkins lacrosse scholarship, then switched to Duke football because he was getting creeped out by Bill Belichick following him around campus.
- Bryan Walters, Kevin Norwood and Brett Brackett: If you see any of these individuals on the field regularly, emotionally prepare yourself for a Cardinals division title immediately.
The Panthers have lost three games by a total margin of 67 points, winning three games by a margin of just 30 points and tying one by a margin of (checking calculator) zero points. Sometimes, the points for-against differential speaks louder than slumps, trades or rumors of turmoil.
Prediction: Seahawks 26, Panthers 13
Bills at Jets
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Jets -3
The Game Previews Psychedelic Black Light Art Gallery proudly presents the following play diagram, a representation of how Marty Mornhinweg will scheme to get all of the Jets' best playmakers on the field at once in a critical red-zone situation.
Bilal Powell (29) starts in his familiar role of pistol quarterback. Michael Vick (1) motions from the slot into the backfield to accept a fake handoff and run an elaborate looping pass route that will take about 19 seconds to complete. Powell option pitches to Chris Johnson (21), who then pitches on a reverse to Percy Harvin (16). Meanwhile, Geno Smith (7) seals the edge by delivering a crushing block to a defensive end, while Eric Decker (87) tries to look busy.
Once he reaches the far sideline, Harvin throws across his body to Vick, wide open in the far corner of the end zone, because the defense just stands there.
The resulting touchdown is nullified by a Willie Colon penalty. "Business as usual," Harvin says before whacking Jeff Cumberland with a shovel.
Not shown in the diagram: Chris Ivory and Jeremy Kerley shaking their heads on the sideline and wondering if they know anyone who has Chip Kelly's phone number.
Prediction: Jets 21, Bills 17
Ravens at Bengals
Sunday, 1 p.m.
The whole "field-stretching deep receiver" concept has become so overstated that it is nearly an urban legend. Yes, a deep-threat receiver has an impact on the coverage and can open up opportunities for teammates, but most teams have several receivers with the speed to "lift the lid" on the safeties. It's not like the scouting combine is short on guys who can run a sub-4.5 40. If a team's designated burner is unavailable, opponents still have to be "honest" in coverage, with at least one safety deep in most situations.
The Bengals are an exception. With A.J. Green unavailable last week, Colts safeties looked like they did not know what to do with themselves. The camera operator recording the All-22 footage actually zoomed in at times because both Colts safeties were within seven yards of the line of scrimmage, even on passing downs; it was like watching Alfred Hitchcock directing a scouting reel.
Sergio Brown sometimes blitzed and sometimes dropped 30 yards deep in anticipation of a receiver who never, ever arrived. Before one snap, he raced all the way up to the line to threaten a blitz, then buzzed back to a point on the field so remote that season ticket holders were milling around. Yes, it was a disguised coverage, but it looked like Brown just got bored. By the third quarter, I expected him to disappear from the back of the frame pre-snap and reappear after the tackle with a carry carton of Starbucks.
Green was still not practicing as of midweek. His uncertain status sounded like an elaborate decoy to conceal the fact that this will be another week of Greg Little drops, Jermaine Gresham and Jeremy Hill failing to outrun anyone in the open field, and Gio Bernard snuff footage. The Ravens practiced as if they would face Green. All they need to do if he does not play is move their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, or send them off on errands.
Prediction: Ravens 23, Bengals 20
Lions vs. Falcons (in London)
Sunday, 9:30 a.m.
Line: Lions -3.5
Tally ho, and all aboard the Kipper Express! NFL football in the morning, straight from London? It's like Wimbledon! The Lions are a gritty, hard-hitting, exciting up-and-coming tennis star, like Jack Sock. The Falcons are a little green ball.
This game is best thought of in BBC terms. The Falcons are Downton Abbey: dignified, harkening back to a rapidly fading Golden Age and unlikely to do anything that gets a doily rumpled. The Lions are The Young Ones. Ndamukong Suh is Vyvyan. Combine The Young Ones with Downton Abbey and you get the greatest television show ever, in England or the world, for the 10 minutes or so before someone cracks the Earl over the head with a cricket bat. This game will have a similar appeal.
With Peter Konz likely out, undrafted rookie James Stone is now the Falcons center, joining a line that already features rookie Jake Matthews at left tackle and Mike Tice perma-project Gabe Carimi at right tackle. The Falcons offensive line may not be hardening, but at least it is promoting players with hard-sounding names. Suh and Nick Fairley should be able to generate two or three sacks simply by growling really loud.
Prediction: Lions 23, Falcons 14
Vikings at Buccaneers
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Buccaneers -2.5
Vincent Jackson remains a member of the Buccaneers despite a whirlwind of trade deadline rumors; NFL Network's Ian Rapoport said the Bucs were getting "tons of calls" about making a deal. Jackson, who survived A.J. Smith's negotiation is for the weak administration in San Diego, only to arrive in Tampa just as Greg Schiano set fire to the retreat boats, is now trapped with the Buccaneers forever. The poor guy couldn't even pull a Percy Harvin and pick a fight with his quarterback to escape town, because Schiano went there first.
At least Jackson is making the most of his plight. He provided a charity baby shower to military moms during the bye week, and the event was a model of practicality. Jackson gave the soldier's wives gifts like car seats and diapers. It was a far cry from last year's Schiano-sponsored gifts: Ancient Sparta Responsible Parent Goodie Packs. (They're just…empty boxes!) According to unconfirmed reports, Lovie Smith and the Buccaneers defense were on hand to make sure the families could leave the parking lot as quickly and effortlessly as possible by trying to stop them.
Vincent Jackson: great receiver, great guy, practical thinker. It's a good thing the Buccaneers kept him: Without him, team headquarters would be out of toilet paper within hours.
Prediction: Vikings 23, Buccaneers 16
Bears at Patriots
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Patriots -7
Brave new frontiers in preventive officiating:
- Bill Belichick can now relay formation adjustments to his players through the referees, who will make hands-on shifts if necessary and call an official timeout if Patriots players are not in advantageous (from a safety standpoint, of course) position.
- If Tom Brady is in danger of being sacked, it is now standard practice for the back judge to fling himself into the path of the attacking defender.
- All officials must take an hourlong tour of Gillette Stadium and The Hall at Patriot Place so they fully appreciate what an honor it is to referee a Patriots game and what a historical embarrassment it would be if something were to go wrong. From a safety standpoint, of course.
- Referees can call pass interference against Darrelle Revis all they want, but only if they are making a broader point.
- If some wacky, over-engineered offensive line rotation strategy results in a sack, the referees must void the play so Belichick and Josh McDaniels can get a different line configuration on the field and hand off.
- In the final two minutes of each half, Belichick and Brady can call their own penalties, increasing response and reaction time and, of course, making everyone safer.
- Visiting locker-room walls will be covered with foam to protect the knuckles of opposing coaches who punch them in frustration.
- Officials will erect a 10-foot barrier around the Bears locker room so no Patriots player is harmed by an object hurled in anger, whether that object is a football, a plastic bottle or Robbie Gould.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Bears 20
Dolphins at Jaguars
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Dolphins -7
The middle linebacker on a terrible team is like the undertaker in a Clint Eastwood western: The uglier things get, the busier he gets. Paul Posluszny has led the Jaguars in tackles every year since 2011; before that, he led the Bills in tackles from 2008 through 2010. The great and powerful Poz is a quality linebacker, but his tackle totals are inflated by countless fourth quarters of running backs plunging into the middle of the defense with both arms on the football and both eyes on the stadium clock.
Poz is out for the year with a torn pectoral muscle; some combination of rookie Jeremiah George and career special teamer J.T. Thomas will replace him. Situational pass-rusher Andre Branch (three sacks) is also out for a few weeks.
What would happen if there were no undertaker in a Clint Eastwood movie? Let's just say the buzzards would start circling.
Prediction: Dolphins 28, Jaguars 10
Texans at Titans
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Texans -3
Since his days as a Steelers assistant, Ken Whisenhunt has held his quarterbacks to the Ben Roethlisberger standard. If they played as well as Roethlisberger, they were worthy starters. Otherwise, he would find someone more Roethlisberger-like. The goal was never to develop a Roethlisberger, mind you, but to find a ready-made Roethlisberger to plug into the lineup and instantly lead Whisenhunt to 15-1 glory.
Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers passed the Roethlisberger test. Matt Leinart was no Roethlisberger. Kevin Kolb sacrificed his health at the altar of Roethlisberger. John Skelton and Derek Anderson looked like Roethlisberger on the team bus, but not all 6'6" guys with lively arms are created equal. Brian Hoyer, Ryan Lindley, Max Hall and Richard Bartel were barely even Skelton, let alone Roethlisberger.
Whisenhunt has just discovered Zach Mettenberger on his bench. Mettenberger looks and sounds like Roethlisberger, so this is a match made in heaven. Mettenberger was a sleeper favorite among draftniks: a big-armed LSU gunner who looked like a first-round pick before tearing his ACL. After the draft, Mettenberger said his knee was not yet close to 100 percent and that he lost muscle mass while rehabbing. He worked his way into shape during the preseason, but he still lost precious pre-rookie development time.
Senior season cut short? Injuries and rehab-related conditioning issues? Sounds like the kind of prospect you bring along slowly. Unless you are Whisenhunt and have grown bored with Charlie Whitehurst's inability to be Ben Roethlisberger.
Bill O'Brien may be struggling with some of the finer points of situational coaching, and his postgame press conferences need to be Belichicked up so we can stop complaining about what he says and start complaining about the fact that he never says anything. But he has the whole "rebuilding team" concept down, which is why we have not seen Ryan Mallett or Tom Savage just yet. Mallett is an obvious attempt to find a Next Tom Brady.
But when he sees J.J. Watt (and perhaps Jadeveon Clowney) tee off on a sixth-round rookie, O'Brien may appreciate the wisdom of waiting out a few more weeks while Ryan Fitzpatrick plinks footballs off linemen's helmets, the newcomers get acclimated and he gets a long look at how his offense works without an All-Pro quarterback.
Prediction: Texans 22, Titans 10
Rams at Chiefs
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Chiefs -8.5
Jeff Fisher and Brian Schottenheimer protecting a third-string quarterback should not be this much fun. The Rams should be shortening their shallow drag pass routes from two yards deep to 1.375 yards deep and punting on third down. Instead, we get fake punts and hidden returner tricks, and that is only part of the excitement. The Rams are spreading the ball among a squadron of ball-carriers (13 different receivers have caught a pass) and enjoying sudden streaks where Austin Davis looks like Marc Bulger with a spin move.
The Rams added Sunday's 28-26 Seahawks upset to a resume that already included wild 34-31 and 34-28 losses to the Cowboys and Eagles, plus a 49ers loss that looked like an upset in the making for a half. The Rams are not winning the way they are supposed to (just four sacks from a defensive line that should be unstoppable, even with Chris Long hurt), but they are keeping things interesting.
The Chiefs gave up excitement after the Patriots win and have settled into their soft jazz groove of Jamaal Charles runs and daring Alex Smith deep passes that travel 11 yards. It's better to be .500 and plodding than .333 and breathtaking, however, and now that the Royals have won Missouri from the Cardinals on the diamond, the Chiefs are in great position to make it a sweep.
Prediction: Chiefs 24, Rams 22
Raiders at Browns
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Line: Browns -7.5
Brian Hoyer's 16-of-41 disaster against the Jaguars was the best thing that could have happened to the Browns, who were very close to getting run over by a runaway Journeyman Quarterback Narrative, again.
Now, runaway Journeyman Quarterback Narratives are a lot of fun for you and me. Heck, when they happen in Washington, they are more fun than a classic Simpsons marathon. But to the Browns, they are rat poison in a juice box. It's time for a ceremonial reading of the Browns Journeyman Quarterbacks Gone Wrong (as opposed to the failed prospects, who have their own list): Kelly Holcomb, Trent Dilfer, Jeff Garcia, Derek Anderson, Jake Delhomme, Jason Campbell and perhaps Hoyer.
The narrative began rolling downhill moments after Hoyer completed a grand total of eight passes in the rout of the Steelers. Maybe this guy is our starter of the future. Maybe the Browns should lock him in long-term. As soon as possible. Maybe the Jets would trade some picks for Johnny Manziel. What are we waiting for? SIGN HOYER FOR AARON RODGERS MONEY IMMEDIATELY. That's not a dramatization of a late-night talk radio argument; it's a sneak peek inside Jimmy Haslam's office.
Luckily, Hoyer is returning to earth, so he can go back to soaking up appearances while Manziel learns the playbook, adjusts to NFL life and takes some first-team practice reps now and then. Journeyman Quarterback Narrative averted.
In a related note, Matt Schaub wonders why he cannot even get a good narrative rolling.
Prediction: Browns 24, Raiders 19
Redskins at Cowboys
Monday, 8:30 p.m.
Line: Cowboys -10
Dear Kirk Cousins: Thanks. And sorry.
Thanks for the thousands of headlines, articles, tweets and talk-radio segments you generated over the last six weeks. Sorry we used you as a cardboard-cutout supporting character/placeholder in our ongoing tale of a vexing would-be superstar and the deliriously incompetent franchise that employs him.
It's all over now. Robert Griffin III will start as soon as he is able to safely take the field to reinjure himself. Colt McCoy is the designated better fit for the system understudy. Like Griffin and Donovan McNabb, franchise saviors before you, you have been relegated to third-string never-ever-ever status. That happens a lot in Washington.
It's an ugly situation, we know. A fake picture of you sulking on the sideline made the Twitter rounds. It was actually a screen capture from last year, but The Washington Post took the time to debunk it. The Post also consulted with a statistics professor who can actually chart quarterback negativity on social media. The numbers don't lie: Unless you instantly became Tom Brady, you were destined for a vicious backlash, even before you were benched.
So yes, we used you as Griffin's foil, then used you as a cautionary tale, and now we are burying you. On the bright side, the next step is blissful anonymity for a few months, then a long career as a backup. Ten years from now, when you are Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jon Gruden is raving on television about your maturity and intelligence while you bounce passes off linemen's helmets, your brief tenure as the NFL's hottest topic will be something to laugh about.
Maybe you should get started on that beard now.
So again, on behalf of the NFL media, thanks and sorry, Kirk Cousins. We won't bother you again for a while. We are resting up so we can really shred Tony Romo the moment he somehow screws up this perfect Cowboys season.
Prediction: Cowboys 31, Redskins 17
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.