Riffs, rants, observations and dissenting opinions from the voices in my head: Here's a warped and dented take on this weekend's games that prepares us for the post-Odell Beckham Jr. Catch era of human history.
Note: All times listed are Eastern, lines are via Odds Shark and game capsules are listed in the order you should read them.
Patriots at Packers
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Line: Packers -3
Unless they meet in a Super Bowl, the Patriots and Packers are not scheduled to play each other again in the regular season until 2018. Tom Brady will likely have been assumed into heaven by then. That makes this the one and only meeting between Brady and Aaron Rodgers that we may ever see.
It would have been a shame to have missed it.
No, Brady was never in danger of being benched, despite a wild hare of a hot take after the Chiefs loss. He was in serious danger of getting injured, however, when the Patriots noodled with rotating offensive line combinations at the start of the season.
Rodgers was in similar peril when Derek Sherrod and others stumbled around in place of Bryan Bulaga at left tackle while rookie center Corey Linsley endured on-the-job training. Rodgers endured nine sacks in his first three games, Brady nine in his first four, and both faced constant pressure and knockdowns that tested the limits of their mobility (Rodgers) and ability to find open receivers at the last millisecond (Brady).
Poor offensive line play also kept the Packers below 80 rushing yards and 4.0 yards per carry for their first four games. The Patriots had more rushing success, but they gained fewer than 90 yards in three of their first four games, and there were quite a few 3rd-and-long draw plays and a Julian Edelman reverse or two in the mix.
Even if Rodgers and Brady survived their weekly onslaughts, they risked having to do everything themselves this year, perhaps for traditional contenders that were falling off the playoff chase one blown block at a time.
Fortunately for both quarterbacks, and for us, the lines coalesced. Linsley has been excellent lately. Bulaga's return stabilized right tackle for the Packers. Rodgers has been sacked just twice in his last three games. Eddie Lacy is averaging just below five yards per carry in the last three weeks, his raw totals suppressed by a pair of fourth quarters watching blowouts from the bench.
Brady has been sacked twice in the last five games. Like Linsley, Bryan Stork has shown consistent improvement since taking over at center. The failed Jordan Devey experiment is over, and both Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer look more comfortable at tackle now that they know who will be crouched inside of them for the entire game.
So Sunday's battle of outstanding quarterbacks is also a battle of much-improved offensive lines, of running games capable of balancing the attack, and of organizations that know how to manage the bold risks they take. Protecting Rodgers and Brady with rookie centers was risky. Getting rid of Logan Mankins was risky. The Packers and Patriots battled through the risks and are now reaping the rewards.
Little things like being able to develop linemen and make adjustments on the fly help separate perennial contenders from franchises that are perpetually rebuilding. Big things like fielding two historically great quarterbacks also separate the perennial contenders from the rest of the pack.
Unless the weather intervenes (forecasts predict a mild day), Rodgers and Brady are going to put on a show worth waiting for. Just remember: It would not be possible if they did not get the support they both need and deserve.
Prediction: Packers 37, Patriots 34
Saints at Steelers
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Steelers -5
Things the Steelers do to outsmart themselves:
• Allow Todd Haley to assemble one of his glitchy, twitchy "nothing but handoffs and screen passes" first-quarter game plans when facing a weak opponent. If Will Johnson is specifically featured in one of the first five or six plays, it is probably going to be a long afternoon.
• Throw LeGarrette Blount deep into Mike Tomlin's naughty running back punishment pit for the crime of losing eight yards trying to make something happen on 3rd-and-goal. Blount made a rope ladder out of old Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman jerseys to escape.
• Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor injured? No problem: Just run the same coverages with Will Allen and Brice McCain and hope no one notices.
Things the Saints do to outsmart themselves:
• Take Jimmy Graham off the field on 4th-and-goal, which is like leaving the sharp knives in the drawer so you can carve the turkey with a spatula.
• Switch suddenly from being the most daring fourth-down team in the NFL to the most conservative fourth-down team in the NFL, somehow picking the worst percentage decision each time.
• Rotate three running backs in the stubborn hope that Travaris Cadet will morph into Darren Sproles.
• Whatever the heck Rob Ryan has done to baffle the Saints defense so thoroughly that it can be shocked and confused by the David Blaine-level trickery of Gary Kubiak.
• Rafael Bush is on the IR now, so we should not be too hard on him, but he was the poster child for self-outsmartment.
The Saints' three-game AFC North tour should have been a chance to restore order to the standings. Instead, it has all but guaranteed that a sub-.500 team will make the NFC playoffs, while the bottom slots in the AFC playoffs will be filled with the teams that happened to have the easiest schedules.
This is the Saints' last chance to restore dignity to their division, but Polamalu and Taylor are expected back, and Haley is less likely to unleash his OCD ground-system offense when he knows the opposing quarterback can put up a fight. Plus, the Saints lost the battle with themselves above by a score of 5-3, which is a tidy way of explaining why they will finish 6-10.
Prediction: Steelers 28, Saints 20
Broncos at Chiefs
Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
Mario Lemieux survived lymphoma and went on to dominate the NHL for years after missing all of 1994-95 to cancer treatment.
Mark Herzlich survived bone cancer and is now playing for the Giants. Former punter Josh Bidwell overcame testicular cancer to play in the NFL for a decade. Testicular cancer nearly ended Mike Lowell's baseball career before it started; he went on to play in four All-Star Games and win two World Series. Outfielder Eric Davis had several productive years for the Orioles, Cardinals and Giants after a 1997 colon cancer diagnosis.
WNBA star Edna Campbell overcame breast cancer and returned to the court. Soccer star Eric Abidal returned to the pitch for Barcelona two months after surgery to remove a tumor from his liver. South African cricketer Dave Callaghan returned to stardom after a bout with testicular cancer.
Lance Armstrong is a hard person to root for, but we are all on the same team against cancer, and Armstrong overcame cancer that had metastasized throughout his body and returned to one of the sports world's most grueling competition circuits.
There have been others. The lists are inspiring and hopeful. They are also distressingly short.
"I understand that right now I have to concentrate on a new opponent," safety Eric Berry said on the Chiefs website after learning he may have lymphoma (there was no diagnosis at press time). "I have great confidence in the doctors and the plan they are going to put in place for me to win this fight."
Humans fight cancer with increasing confidence and an improving won-loss record. But we must still battle the shock and fear with hope, courage and faith. And our priorities must always remain in sharp focus: Life, health and family first, a return to work and the trivial goal of winning an athletic championship, if possible, a long-distant second.
The Chiefs' season continues without Berry. The playoffs are still a possibility. We will worry about those soon enough. For now, let's acknowledge the more important battle and our toughest enemy.
Prediction: Broncos 27, Chiefs 17
Chargers at Ravens
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Ravens -7
The Chargers have won five of their last seven East Coast 1 p.m. kickoff games. They are 12-10 in East Coast early games since 2005, a credible record for a series of out-of-division road games. They are 11-11 against the spread in those games.
There is no evidence the Chargers suffer any form of cross-country jet lag, despite their 37-0 loss to the Dolphins on Nov. 2. The Chargers' problem in that game was not a circadian rhythm stuck at 10 a.m. West Coast time, but a starting lineup full of fourth-string centers and third-string running backs against a very tough defense.
The somewhat healthier Chargers need a healthier deep passing attack to defeat the Ravens. Philip Rivers' yards-per-attempt average dropped for four consecutive weeks from the first Raiders win (9.21) to the second (5.68).
The figure rebounded to 8.31 yards per attempt when Rivers completed 82.9 percent of his passes last week, but the Chargers have been surviving on a steady diet of 12- to 16-yard passes to Keenan Allen, with few of the big plays from Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal that made their offense so dangerous at the start of the year.
The Ravens have one flashing neon weakness: Their cornerbacks cannot cover anyone deep. Exploit it, and you beat them. Let their pass rush, run defense and methodical Kubiak premium-vanilla offense do their thing, and Baltimore will grind you down.
With Rivers dealing with one of those non-injury rib injuries (Camnewtonitis) and centers still spontaneously combusting every few weeks, the Chargers don't have the big-play capability or versatility to beat the Ravens in Baltimore right now. They need better health and more consistency, not a wake-up call.
Prediction: Ravens 26, Chargers 23
Browns at Bills
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Bills -3
The voices inside my head are arguing about what sort of preview to write...
The zone-stretch offensive philosophy has reshaped the AFC North this season. OMG, OMG, OMG! Johnny Manziel was involved in a hotel brawl at 2:30 a.m. last Saturday.
The Ravens, Steelers and Browns all committed to the old Mike Shanahan-Gary Gibbs zone-stretch scheme this season: the Ravens and Browns by hiring first-generation disciples Gary Kubiak and Kyle Shanahan as coordinators, the Steelers by adding offensive line coach Mike Munchak. A dude named Chris Gonos walked up to Manziel at an elevator and asked for a hug. Think he said something like, "I love you, Brandon Weeden"?
The zone-stretch is a simple yet elegant system: A handful of basic running plays are used to set up a play-action, rollout-heavy passing game. According to one report, Gonos' brother "tackled" Manziel. The Falcons really need to sign Gonos' brother.
At its worst, like when Kubiak and Matt Schaub had grown stale in Houston, the system can be too predictable. Gonos has a criminal record, including a bunch of alcohol-related misdemeanors and a federal charge of "structuring financial transactions to avoid filing currency transaction reports." Are we certain "Chris Gonos" is not an alias for "Jimmy Haslam"?
But when executed with creativity and precision, the zone-stretch offense pressures the front seven by forcing it to defend laterally and freezes the pass coverage to create open passing windows. Manziel denies that he was traveling with an "entourage," only a roommate. Yet one published report had someone on the scene referring to Manziel as his "client." There should be an official rule about what constitutes an "entourage": One or two are "peeps," three to five an "entourage," six to 12 a "posse," 13-20 a "cohort," 21-25 a "battalion" and 26-plus an "Eddie Murphy 1980s entourage."
Kyle Shanahan's zone-stretch is doing for Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West what it did for Alfred Morris and Roy Helu Jr. in Washington, and the easy reads and throws it creates are making Brian Hoyer look good. Though not as good as Manziel is making him look.
The Ravens and Steelers are reaping similar benefits, but the effect is most notable for the Browns. Manziel has a record too, of course. He failed to identify himself to a College Station, Texas, police officer in 2013. There was a cop in College Station who could not identify Manziel last year. And Manziel somehow figured he could keep his identity secret. Is it just me, or does even thinking about Manziel make us all stupider?
Sunday is a homecoming for Mike Pettine, who did for the Bills defense last year what he is doing for the Browns defense this year. Both the Bills and Browns are enjoying their best seasons in years, and Buffalo has shoveled out enough so that the game will not be played at some neutral site. Good thing, too, because a frozen-over Buffalo may be the one place on earth where Manziel cannot get into any kind of trouble.
Prediction: Bills 23, Browns 21
Redskins at Colts
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Colts -10.5
These game previews are born on Monday afternoon, when I type up the week's schedule and brainstorm potential storyline hooks based on key matchups, rivalries and homecomings. Some storylines are more preview-worthy than others.
Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers? Of course! Chatter about the Raiders and Rams both moving back to Los Angeles? It's not like they are playoff teams, so why not? Mike Pettine's return to Buffalo? Meh...it's not exactly Lovie Smith returning to Chicago.
I actively avoid regional newspapers, team blogs and media press releases during this brainstorming phase, lest I end up writing about the same thing everyone else is writing about.
It was late Tuesday afternoon that I realized this was supposed to be Robert Griffin III-Andrew Luck I. The quarterbacks who broke the 2012 draft, the can't-miss prospects who were destined to define the 2010s, were scheduled for their first regular-season meeting!
When they met in the 2012 preseason, I pushed for a media credential just so I could be in the building for the first of what promised to be many Brady-Manning-like duels. Now, just a little over two years later, it took me over a day just to realize that this matchup was supposed to be significant. And then Griffin was officially benched, rendering this game utterly moot.
It has been depressing to watch Griffin get built up as some sort of superhuman, then dragged through the streets in disgrace, then become the bumbling non-entity we saw last week, a quarterback whose footwork is so bad that he falls backward when throwing into the flat. There has been predictable chatter about Griffin landing in Dallas as Romo's successor, or somewhere else in some other buzzy scenario, but broken prospects of Griffin's magnitude rarely enjoy second acts.
Griffin may never, ever face Luck in a regular-season game. Luck and Russell Wilson will be the next generation's Brady-Manning. Griffin is looking more and more like the guy in the picture, although he is far less likely to burn out than fade away.
Prediction: Colts 26, Redskins 17
Panthers at Vikings
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Vikings -2.5
From the Department of Faint Praise and Backhanded Compliments: Teddy Bridgewater slides very well. Bridgewater doesn't have the wheels or wiggle of the NFL's most elusive quarterbacks, but he scores a little above 50 percent on the Joe Flacco-Colin Kaepernick escapability spectrum.
When there are no more productive yards to be gained after fleeing the pocket, he makes like Jacoby Ellsbury instead of absorbing an unnecessary blow. With tackle Phil Loadholt out for the year (with longtime Bears delusion J'Marcus Webb in line to replace him), Bridgewater will have to do even more escaping and sliding.
The slides are symbolic of where the Vikings are right now. They can do a lot of things well, just not enough of them to climb onto the ground floor of the playoff picture. Offensive drives consist of a first down or two, finished with a Bridgewater slide just short of a first down, then maybe a long Blair Walsh field goal. They are just good enough to play everyone close.
Bridgewater is one of many Vikings players with the potential to get much better, so staying healthy should be a priority for him. In a league where Griffin moves in the pocket like it's his first time on a lobster boat and Cam Newton moves like it hurts to blink, self-preservation may be a young quarterback's smartest move. Minnesota could be a dangerous team next year. Until then, slide, Teddy, slide!
Prediction: Vikings 20, Panthers 16
Titans at Texans
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Texans -7.5
If the Texans wanted to make this game interesting, they would start Tom Savage against Zach Mettenberger. It would be the battle of the strong-armed prospects who were touted as first-round picks by scouts and draftniks infatuated by strong-armed prospects (the Mike Mayock Society) but who fell to Day 3 because there is more to playing quarterback than throwing pretty fastballs!
Reports out of Houston indicate that Savage is not ready, and Bill O'Brien is not ready to throw in the towel while the Texans still have reasonable playoff chances. Well, Mettenberger is not ready, either!
We could have an afternoon of stereophonic sacks: J.J. Watt taking selfies atop Mettenberger's carcass, Savage buried under a pile of Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug, the occasional touchdown thrown at 115 miles per hour through two defenders' hands to Justin Hunter or DeAndre Hopkins, all the while the broadcast displays graphics of how the head coaches "developed" Tom Brady, Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers!
Apparently, O'Brien doesn't throw rookie quarterbacks to the wolves in the name of ego/impatience. Others could learn a lesson from that. The most important person who needs to learn that lesson is one of the few people we can be certain will actually be watching.
Prediction: Texans 19, Titans 13
Giants at Jaguars
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Giants -3
Odell Beckham Jr. leaping catch gift ideas for the holidays: Beckham Christmas tree ornaments (actually Frosty the Snowman painted blue); Odell-opoly, the Beckham-themed board game where The Catch is "Go," Tom Coughlin's Doghouse is "jail," you buy Eli Manning interceptions instead of hotels, and Free Parking only comes with a season-ticket purchase; Beckham bathroom scrubbies with adjustable hand-shaped brush for those hard-to-reach places; and the most popular seller: the "I tweeted about Odell Beckham's catch" T-shirt/coffee mug combo.
Wednesday on Keeping Up with the Kardashians: The girls vie to get Beckham into a hot tub in their usual desperate effort to keep pace with the latest fad, but they get mixed up about which Giants receiver is which. Show to be renamed We're Fighting Over Jerrel Jernigan for Some Reason.
Thursday on Dr. Phil: Women who can only achieve sexual satisfaction while watching replays of Beckham's catch, and the men who wear modified Danny Kanell jerseys because they love them.
Now available on Amazon and elsewhere: Images of Imagery: The Giant Coffee Table Book of Photoshopped Images of Odell Beckham's Catch, co-curated by the British Museum and the Smithsonian, with forwards by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Tiki Barber and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Features never-before-seen images of Beckham catching a football over Michelangelo's David and with a smug-looking Gene Wilder Willy Wonka looking on. New: $179.99.
Friday on NFL Network: NFL Top 10 presents the top-10 camera angles of Beckham's catch.
Sunday on Fox: A 3-8 team faces a 1-10 team. Jaguars remind America that all-time highlight catches fade from memory pretty fast when you aren't winning any games.
Prediction: Giants 31, Jaguars 17
Bengals at Buccaneers
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Bengals -3.5
What could be more exciting than analysis of a Bengals-Buccaneers game? In-depth special teams analysis of a Bengals-Buccaneers game!
Paul Dehner Jr. of the Chillicothe Gazette wrote the most detailed special teams breakdown I have ever read by someone who was not me. Dehner outlines the advantage the Bengals have gotten in the field-position battle from punter Kevin Huber, returner Adam Jones and others. Huber gets much of the love.
"Over the last six games, he's held a net average of 46.1 yards and gross of 49.8. He's bombed a punt of at least 54 yards in all but one of those games and is currently tied for the NFL lead in punts landing inside the 20." Testify!
Football Outsiders agrees (mostly) with Dehner's treatise. The Bengals rank seventh in the NFL in special teams DVOA, first in punting DVOA. Football Outsiders remembers that Mike Nugent had the worst field-goal accuracy south of the Great Lakes early in the year, which is why Cincinnati doesn't rank higher.
But here is the rub: The Bengals rank fourth in the NFL in "Hidden Special Teams," which is a fancy term for dumb stuff opponents do that the team cannot be given any real credit for, like missed field goals and shanked punts. Cincinnati's special teams is excellent now that Nugent has fixed his gyroscope, but the unit is also getting tiny boosts from opponent mistakes. Graham Gano's missed field goal in the Panthers tie is one memorable example.
The Buccaneers miss field goals and shank punts with the best of them, so the Bengals will enjoy their special teams boost for at least another week.
The rest of the schedule is nasty, and with left tackle Andre Smith (arm) lost for the year, the Bengals will need more help than some booming punts and short opponent kickoffs can provide.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Buccaneers 14
Cardinals at Falcons
Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
Bruce Arians admitted this week that the Cardinals need a between-the-tackles power runner: Andre Ellington is unsuited to the task, and Stepfan Taylor is more of a special-teamer and third-stringer.
The Cardinals passed on LeGarrette Blount in waivers, because the best thing to do when you need a situational role player is pass up the ideal role player for the situation because he is, like, a jerk and stuff. Their waiver claim on Ben Tate failed because the Vikings got to him first, so the Cardinals settled for the remarkable Michael Bush.
Bush averaged 3.1 yards per carry last season for the Bears. He gained 40 yards on one run, averaging 2.5 yards per carry for the rest. In the red zone, he carried 15 times for 14 yards. He carried nine times from the 1-yard line, averaging NEGATIVE-four yards while scoring two touchdowns. The question is not why the Cardinals are signing Bush but how did the Jets miss him?
With Larry Fitzgerald not practicing until Friday and Bush adding the minus-one-yard plunge to the arsenal, 20 points may be a chore for the Cardinals for a while. That will not be a problem this week, when the Falcons will miss tackles, allow free rushers and call timeouts until Arizona manufactures a win. But in December, the Cardinals will be wondering why they settled for Mister Nice Guy.
Prediction: Cardinals 20, Falcons 17
Raiders at Rams
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Rams -7
If Marcus Allen has his way, Raiders-Rams will be a subway series, or (more West Coast appropriate) a stuck-in-traffic series, or a share-the-venue-but-everyone-still-gets-stuck-in-traffic series in a few years.
Using the verbal equivalent of the roundabout elusiveness he used to beat the Redskins in the Super Bowl, Allen told Fox Sports this week, "The two teams I think would have to be a perfect fit again would be the two teams that have been here in the past that have followings: the Rams and Raiders. I've said that before, and I'll continue to say that."
Actually, Allen was continuing to say that even as he was saying it.
The "following" thing is real. The Raiders have fans everywhere, and there is indeed a "Bring Back the Rams" club in Southern California that reportedly has 42,000 members. It is not entirely certain, however, that the boosters want to bring back these Rams.
This Los Angeles Daily News article reports that Rams fans at the Chargers game were "decked out in Jack Youngblood, Eric Dickerson, Pat Haden jerseys." You are not getting the Fearsome Foursome or Marcus Allen, L.A. sports fans. If these teams return, you are getting Janoris Jenkins and a bunch of dudes who celebrate sacks while the clock is ticking.
The Raiders and Rams only met five times when they were Los Angeles-Anaheim neighbors. The games were close but rarely noteworthy: Allen and Eric Dickerson played in some of the early ones, but the box scores are full of Jim Everett, Jay Schroeder and other historical footnotes. The last era of two-team Los Angeles football was not that great. The next one may not be off to a red-hot start, either.
Prediction: Rams 22, Raiders 16
Dolphins at Jets
Monday, 8:30 p.m.
Line: Dolphins -7
The Dolphins endure a lot of teasing around here because of their neurotic unwillingness to throw the ball downfield. They are 14-of-53 on passes labeled "deep" in the play-by-play (more than 15 yards in the air) for 373 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Ryan Tannehill went 0-of-3 throwing deep against the Broncos, 1-of-7 with two interceptions against the Packers, 1-of-3 for 20 yards against the Lions and 1-of-5 for 22 yards and an interception against the Patriots. Bottom line: The Dolphins do a lot of things very well, but their complete lack of a deep-passing attack can be a problem when they face tougher foes.
But then we have the Jets, who hid the shame of their all-screens, scrambles, fullback gives and Jeremy Kerley Wildcats (Bilal Powell was hurt) offense from the nation with the help of a rescheduled neutral-site game on Monday evening.
There is no hiding from NFL Game Rewind or the Football Outsiders' internal database, however: The Jets are 11-of-54 for 354 yards, three touchdowns and NINE INTERCEPTIONS when throwing deep this season. That's right: When not dripping the ball to Percy Harvin with seven defenders converging on him, Michael Vick and Geno Smith are almost as likely to throw an interception as complete a 16-plus-yard pass.
The Jets' quarterback rating on deep passes is 33.3; the Dolphins' rating is just 45.9. Keep in mind that a quarterback who only throws incomplete passes earns a rating of 39.6, so the Jets would be better off making a cheerleader use a T-shirt cannon to launch deep passes into the stands than asking Vick and Smith to try to complete them.
Expect lots of screens, options and short passes on crossing routes to underutilized receivers in this game, plus sacks galore. In other words, it will be like the Bills-Dolphins' Thursday night game two weeks ago, only longer, sloppier and far, far sadder.
Prediction: Dolphins 23, Jets 3
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.