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 more references to Darren Bennett and Jay Fiedler than Johnny Manziel or J.J. Watt. Because that's a great business model.
Note: All times listed are Eastern, lines are via Odds Shark and game capsules are listed in the order you should read them.
49ers at Seahawks
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Line: Seahawks -10.5
Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman and Colin Kaepernick had all the answers during the final days of January 2013.
The 49ers were the toast of Super Bowl week, clear favorites over the drab-and-familiar Ravens. While the Ravens needed to spray themselves with deer antler concoctions to make themselves interesting, Harbaugh, Kaepernick and (for the tactical-geek set) offensive coordinator Roman enjoyed Avengers-at-ComicCon status.
Harbaugh replaced Alex Smith with Kaepernick just weeks earlier. The daring move looked brilliant, as the then-unknown quarterback beat opponents like the Saints and Patriots with his both his arm and his legs.
Kaepernick humiliated the Packers defense in the playoffs with 181 rushing yards, 263 passing yards and four total touchdowns. Unstoppable on the field, soft-spoken off the field, fresh fashion-forward grist for the media marketing mill, he was superstardom still wrapped in its retail packaging.
Roman kept the engine purring. Opponents dealt with his pistol options the way Bears opponents must have coped with the T-formation when it debuted in the 1930s: a mixture of confusion, unpreparedness and awe. Under the hood, Roman tinkered with pull-and-trap tactics that the NFL forgot when Bill Walsh preached West Coast Offense orthodoxy. Roman had more ways to gain five yards off tackle than any team needed, and film junkies loved the intricate blocking patterns as much as they loved watching Kaepernick outrun safeties.
It was Camelot, and while the Super Bowl brought an upset, there was no reason to think it would bring the end. Harbaugh, Kaepernick and Roman stormed the playoffs again a season later, but the results were not quite as magical. The Seahawks displayed everything the 49ers wanted to be: tough on defense, crafty with options, the Pac-10 firebrand coach and quarterback for the smartphone era. There were hiccups on that 2013 playoff road: games where Kaepernick's growth seemed stunted, games where Harbaugh's Man-on-Fire sideline act had worn thin, long stretches where Roman's offense moved like a thresher on a NASCAR track.
Twenty-two months after we hailed the 49ers as the face of the NFL's future, 10 months after they came within a few plays of returning to the Super Bowl, we are tearing down statues and scratching the names off the obelisks. The rift between Harbaugh and his bosses has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, his wild-man routine (like so many other wild-man routines) proved to be a better short-term motivator than long-range management plan.
Roman has so many toys in his toy chest that he cannot focus on any of them: He lines up a series of 2012-vintage power runs to get his team into the red zone, then gets distracted and switches to a spread formation that can only lead to a field goal. Kaepernick got lost halfway between deadly duel threat and traditional pocket passer, often combining the worst of both worlds.
What should be the battle to decide the NFC has become a game with a double-digit spread. The 49ers must now prove that they are still worthy of our attention.
The 49ers offense has not looked truly playoff worthy since the season opener; it has not even been get-the-job-done mediocre since the Saints victory a month ago. Like the Seahawks, the 49ers have defense to burn. However, they have not made peace with their offensive limitations.
Pete Carroll knows it's all about the Russell Wilson option, the Marshawn Lynch inside zone, some screens, and whatever magic happens once a Wilson scramble frees a forgotten tight end along a lonesome sideline. The Seahawks play to avoid turnovers, kick field goals and milk their big plays. Recent 49ers losses—and some close calls against the Giants and Redskins—show that they expect to fool opponents with a 60-yard pistol option, still think opponents rear back in fear of Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree and still expect Kaepernick to do what Wilson does.
Worst of all, the 49ers may not be playing with their backs to the wall, but with their feet out the door.
The 49ers are a hard team to like right now, either as upset winners on Sunday, as contenders or just as a team to sit and root for. Their games are more frustrating than fun. Watch Harbaugh throw a tantrum on the sideline, Kaepernick scramble into avoidable interceptions and Roman call random kitchen sink plays, and what you really see is squandered potential and a missed opportunity. This is a dynasty that burned out before it even got started.
The 49ers had the NFL in their palm less than two years ago, then opened their fingers and let the league drop. The Seahawks will out-muscle and out-will them Sunday, like they did on Thanksgiving. Maybe it will be for the best: The quicker the 49ers close the book on the fall of their Round Table, the better.
Prediction: Seahawks 22, 49ers 16
Cowboys at Eagles
Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
Line: Eagles -3
Mark Sanchez has been cruel to Eagles fans this year.
New Eagles quarterbacks are supposed to follow a predictable career path known as the Hoying Hyperbola. There's a sustained period of excellence, whether it lasts three games (Bobby Hoying), roughly two-thirds of a year (Nick Foles, Michael Vick) or several seasons (Donovan McNabb), followed by a rapid decline into horror. The rise gives Philly fans a chance to invest emotionally in the quarterback by purchasing jerseys, painting his face on the sides of minivans and naming children after him, making their eventual hatred of him that much more personal and acute. It's an ebb and flow that predates Ron Jaworski, and generations of fans have tuned their manic-depressive biorhythmic cycle to it.
Sanchez has opted for more of a saw-toothed good-game-bad-game pattern, and it is giving fans whiplash. I have heard guys switch from "we have resurrected this guy from New York and need to lock him into a 17-year contract for Aaron Rodgers money" to "if Nick Foles doesn't return tomorrow all of my personal dreams will die" in mid-paragraph. Philly fans (I have written an authoritative book on the subject) have 453 words for "boo" but no word for "backup quarterback who cannot beat better opponents."
Sanchez's spirited Thanksgiving performance over the hated Cowboys only muddies the emotional waters. A loss at home on Sunday could cause the kind of mass hysteria that can only be quelled by a powerful force like a Ryan Howard trade.
Cowboys defensive end Jeremy Mincey admitted this week (via ESPN) that his team "underestimated" the Eagles, though not necessarily because of Sanchez.
"It was the run scheme pretty much," Mincey said. "Like you would dominate your man and then you'd peek inside and that little bit of discipline, it was costing us big chunks of yardage."
Mincey added that the Cowboys were getting pumped for a rematch as recently as last Thursday night and had to warn each other not to look past an opponent who was still actually facing them on the field. "Even during the Chicago game, I had to [say], 'Hey, hush, man. We've got to finish beating Chicago and then we'll get to it.' "
In summary: Underestimating the Eagles is dangerous. Investing too much in Sanchez is dangerous. But your mind can wander in the middle of a Bears game without consequence.
Prediction: Eagles 27, Cowboys 26
Bengals at Browns
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Browns -1
It is inappropriate to call Johnny Manziel a "midget," as Marv Lewis did during a radio interview on Sunday, and not just because the word is insensitive. Manziel is a smallish-by-NFL-standards fellow known for performing tipsy jigs and reels around the field until he staggers, almost by accident, into pots of unimaginable treasure. He is clearly a Leprechaun.
Oh dear, I just remembered that my wife is Irish. Which means my kids are Irish. Also many of my neighbors, and…oops…my assigning editor and a large chunk of the Bleacher Report masthead. Manziel is not a Leprechaun! He's…an elf! What's going to happen now: Legolas and Hermey are gonna come and kick my butt/fire me/make me sleep on the couch? Granted, that dude on the shelf is giving me the "no Civilization: Beyond Earth in your stocking this year" look.
Lewis' comments about his approach to defending Manziel were shocking even before he added a controversial coda. He told an Ohio radio station that Manziel's anticipated promotion (Lewis spoke before Manziel was officially named the starter on Tuesday) would have no effect on his team's preparation. "You'll get a little bit more movement if Manziel's the quarterback, the thing that they did against Buffalo," he said. "But other than that, no, that doesn't impact you at all. You gotta go defend the offense. You don't defend the player."
True, coach. But what if the player completely changes the offense? It's well-known that Kyle Shanahan has a vast option-pistol package boxed in his garage, untouched since the Redskins' 2012 playoff loss. Perhaps the Bengals should go over their option responsibilities in practice this week? This is a defense that got gouged by the same no-frills Steelers counter play time after time last week: It won't do for them to react to Manziel sneaking around left end as if they just saw David Copperfield make a jumbo jet disappear.
But then, maybe the "midget" comment was Lewis' awkward way to suggest he was pulling our legs. Or lulling the Browns into complacency. Or admitting that he has never actually seen Manziel at all.
The proper punishment for calling a six-foot tall man a "midget" should not be condemnation from anti-defamation leagues, but five straight years of Sunday night road Seahawks games on the Bengals schedule. Since Cincinnati cannot beat top-tier opponents or win after sundown, a half-decade of blowout losses would make Lewis wary of poking fun at the wee folk. That is, if he keeps his job.
Prediction: Browns 24, Bengals 21
Dolphins at Patriots
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Patriots -9
The Dolphins have not swept the Patriots in a season series since 2000, the year before Tom Brady took over at starting quarterback for the Patriots. Jay Fiedler out-dueled Drew Bledsoe in those games. My favorite stat from that 2000 series: Dolphins running back Lamar Smith rushed 20 times for 42 yards in the first game and 20 times for—Holy Trent Richardson Batman!—22 yards in the second. The Dolphins won the next meeting 30-10 in October of 2001. Brady and Fiedler combined for 173 passing yards, but Smith quit slacking and provided 144 yards.
All of that reminiscing means that it is hard to imagine the current Dolphins engineering both their first season sweep and their first three-game Patriots winning streak since the days when Bill Belichick was that bum Parcells wannabe the Browns fired. In addition to the usual Dolphins woes (no downfield passing attack, Joe Philbin getting his late-game strategies from The Beginners Guide to Flashlight Tag) the Dolphins front seven is suddenly playing like everyone got old at once. Cameron Wake and the D-line led the way for the last two Patriots upsets, but they don't look ready to disrupt Tom Brady or stuff LeGarrette Blount after letting the Broncos and Ravens run through them.
On the plus side, Lamar Miller probably won't continue the Lamar tradition of rushing 20 times for a few feet per carry, but only because Philbin never gives his running back more than 13 carries.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Dolphins 17
Packers at Bills
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Packers -4.5
In an effort to keep the Packers from looking past the Bills, or to reassure fans that the Packers are not looking past the Bills or at least to give fans a plausible reason why they themselves should not just look past the Bills, the Packers team website published a story of Kyle Orton's epic 2011 upset of the 13-0 Packers, when he was the Chiefs quarterback.
"It was a long time ago," Orton said, no doubt straining to remember that strange period of his life when he was waived by the Broncos in the rush of Tebowmania, claimed by Romeo Crennel's Chiefs and inserted almost directly into the huddle. "It was obviously a big one when I was with Kansas City. They had a really good team and we play a really good team this week,"
Orton threw for 299 yards in that 2011 upset, which ended in a 19-14 final. He did as well as could be expected for a quarterback who had: a) just met his receivers; and b) learned to his dismay that their names were Terrance Copper and Steve Breaston. But the Chiefs survived that game with a bunch of short field goals—three Orton drives ended inside the 10-yard line—and a three-sack performance by Tamba Hali, who pressured Aaron Rodgers into a poor performance by his standards.
The Bills are capable of pressuring any quarterback into distraction. But Orton is always better at the beginning of a string of starts than at the end. His production has been steadily slipping when facing non-Jets opponents. The Packers have many reasons to stay focused against the Bills—the conference race is tight, out-of-conference home teams with their backs to the wall can cause trouble, the short practice week, the front four—but Orton's deadly upset capability is not really one of them.
Prediction: Packers 24, Bills 20
Broncos at Chargers
Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
Line: Broncos -4
With Mike Scifres recovering from a clavicle injury he suffered in the Patriots game, veteran Mat McBriar takes over as the Chargers punter. McBriar has been the NFL's Punter 33 in the NFL—the first punter off the waiver wire when there is a catastrophe anywhere in the league—but he arrives at the referral of Darren Bennett, former Chargers punter, fellow Aussie and McBriar's mentor when he first took up American Rules Football. Bennett's endorsement carries a lot of weight in San Diego, as Ricky Henne pointed out on the Chargers website. Bennett is in the Chargers Ring of Honor and is a member of both the team's 30th and 40th anniversary teams.
So…a punter is in the Chargers Ring of Honor? Sure, Ray Guy and some others have earned significant honors, and I don't want to begrudge anyone a sliver or immortality, but Bennett was a two-time Pro Bowler on a string of mostly forgettable Chargers teams. He arrived just after the 1994 Super Bowl team and gave way to Scifres before the 14-2 and 13-3 teams of last decade. Knighting a punter (admittedly a very good one) for a bunch of teams that finished 5-11 or 8-8 may be a sign of low organizational ambition.
Granted, the Chargers Ring of Honor is huge. Guys like Gil Byrd, Stan Humphries and Rolf Benirschke are in there, as well as the Dan Fouts-Kellen Winslow types you would expect and some AFL oldies. Center Don Macek from the Fouts era is also in there, and as the bar is currently set, Nick Hardwick is sure to join him. But have either of them recommended a reliable veteran replacement at their position, from Australia or any other continent? Nope. Slackers.
McBriar was offered Bennett's No. 2 uniform, but declined to wear it out of respect. If Bennett can find an old buddy to snap footballs to Philip Rivers and snap the Chargers offense back to early season form, everyone in San Diego will be forced to bow in his presence.
Prediction: Broncos 30, Chargers 20
Vikings at Lions
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Line: Lions -9.5
The Lions really need head coach Mike Zimmer to develop a smart gameplan to stop the Vikings' two top receiving targets: Golden Tate and Calvin "Jumbotron" Johnson. For Vikings head coach Norv Turner, it's more a matter of getting the most out of the team's aging veteran core. Quarterback Bobby Creekwater cannot rely on bruising fullback Matt Asiago, so he will air it out to beleaguered receiver Corduroy Peterson and tight end Rudolph Fauria. With the Lions eliminated from the playoffs and the Vikings battling for first place in the NFC South, this game comes down to one simple question: Can the Vikings stop J.J. Watt from rushing for 150 yards against them?
Game previews would like to thank Mike Goldberg for sharing some of the insights he learned from handling play-by-play chores during the last Lions-Vikings game, which ended in (triple fact-checking) a 17-3 Lions victory. The Vikings are no gimmie, so the Lions need to continue playing the way they have over the last two weeks before ending their season with back-to-back divisional road games.
The usual caveats about late-season Lions collapses apply, but the Lions (like Goldberg) deserve the chance to turn the page, even as smart-alecks like me take our final shots.
Prediction: Lions 20, Vikings 17
Jaguars at Ravens
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Ravens -14.5
Gary Kubiak's playbook will never fool anyone. It's up to his players to execute precisely for the play calls to succeed. This means carrying out little things like quarterback eye discipline. So let's take a look at how Joe Flacco froze Dolphins defenders to create some opportunities in last week's 28-13 victory.
The first figure comes from midway through the third quarter. It's your basic Kubiak play-action pass. The running backs and linemen pretend the play is an outside zone-stretch play to the left; Flacco rolls right. None of his three receivers are doing anything earth shattering: Steve Smith (89) runs a short bench route, Jacoby Jones (12) goes deep and Owen Daniels (81) runs a crossing route at a depth of about 15 yards.
To make sure he has an open throwing window, Flacco stares down Smith while rolling out. This keeps safety Reshad Jones (20) locked in place. Flacco then sets and winds up for a bomb to Jones, which prompts R.J. Stanford (41) to peel off his coverage of Daniels while Brent Grimes (21) remains in pursuit of the deep receiver. The only Dolphins defender in Daniels' zone is Koa Misi (55), who is hustling back after chasing the run action. Flacco looks off of Jones and fires an easy 16-yard pass to Daniels.
Figure 2 comes from the fourth quarter, when the Dolphins defense is starting to fall apart. Once again, you have an outside zone-stretch play fake, this time to the right. Two receivers clear out, fullback Kyle Juszczyk (44) winds behind the offensive line and into the left flat, and someone named Phillip Supernaw (84) runs a crossing route. The Dolphins have lots of underneath zone coverage, so Flacco stares and pump-fakes to his fullback to get both Misi and an outside linebacker out-of-position. With every other Dolphins defender either chasing the play-fake or going deep with a receiver, Supernaw is open for an easy catch-and-run.
With this level of precision execution, the combination of Kubiak's oatmeal gameplans and Flacco's inscrutable gaze can be unstoppable, particularly for a bad team. The Jaguars have plenty of Kubiak experience from the coach's days with the Texans. They just don't have much experience stopping him.
Prediction: Ravens 31, Jaguars 21
Buccaneers at Panthers
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Panthers -3
There's a breed of fan who flies into a blinding rage at the sight of a quarterback smiling when things aren't going well. A sheepish grin after an interception (the Donovan McNabb special)? Cut the money-grubbing jerk. A light moment on the sideline during a blowout loss, caught on television camera? Force him to undergo dangerous medical experiments. Quarterbacks are supposed to act like they are at the state funeral for a beloved boy prince during a loss, unless they are barking orders at their troops.
And then there are analysts for major media outlets who will criticize a (then collegiate) quarterback's smile as "fake" and consider it a valid scouting point.
So there was Cam Newton lying on the highway on Tuesday afternoon, flipped pickup truck in the background, receiving medical treatment after the kind of auto accident that provokes the sign of the cross from passing rubberneckers. In obvious pain, Newton still smiled broadly at the camera, as if he wanted to make sure Twitter saw the Under Armor logo on his jacket, as if he were posing for the cover of the 2015 Athletes and Paramedics Wall Calendar. I suppose a critic could suggest he "always knows where the cameras are and plays to them," though this was a pretty extreme example.
Was Newton's smile phony? I lack that sort of scouting acumen. Maybe it's a philosophical question: If you put on a fake smile to mask obvious pain, doesn't your urge to mask the pain make the smile real?
The angry fan's cliche is based on the belief that a quarterback who behaves at all times like he just crawled out of a foxhole is somehow tougher, more committed and more real than someone capable of feeling and expressing the full spectrum of human emotions, even when his football team is trailing by 10. I've never met anyone relentlessly grim and determined at all times who was not putting on a "fake" act of their own, except for one or two people who ended up needing medication. Tough, dedicated, resilient leaders sometimes smile when things go wrong. That smile is often more inspirational than a frown or a furious shout.
The next time you get mad because your quarterback isn't brooding like Batman after a three-and-out, remember Cam Newton after his truck accident. Some people smile in the face adversity. The world needs more people like that.
Prediction: Panthers 22, Buccaneers 17
Jets at Titans
Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
Line: Jets -1
Chris Johnson needs 109 rushing yards against his former team to reach 667 yards and become CJ2/3RDSK.
Gosh, remember when Johnson was King of the Titans, the only NFL player in Tennessee who ever generated a national headline? Now he's just another disappointing player for the Jets, and the Titans don't have anyone worth talking about. Let's remember Chris Johnson in happier times with a vintage photograph. Perhaps with Vince Young handing him the ball?
That's the stuff. Viewers in the New York metro area (which includes Philadelphia and about half of earth's population) will get this game instead of Johnny Manziel. Thanks, broadcast rules that date back to the age of rabbit ear antenna!
Prediction: Titans 20, Jets 10
Steelers at Falcons
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Steelers -1
Only one thing stands between the Steelers and a deep playoff run, but it's their most terrifying foe: a terrible opponent that still has a flicker of life.
The Falcons are the Steelers' last bad opponent before the playoffs, meaning this is the Steelers' last chance to perform their nifty James Bond trick of walking right into the corny villain's obvious trap. The first half of the Falcons' Monday night loss showed a defense that plays like they are trying to stop the opponent from getting to the bottom of a sledding hill. Todd Haley should be able to call his favorite Le'Veon Bell counter play 25 times and get both 175 yards and the satisfaction of watching defenders get plowed into giant piles behind the end zone.
Ah, but the Steelers have outsmarted themselves in situations like these many times (see: Buccaneers, Jets, Saints, nearly Titans and Jaguars). Haley may decide this is the week to get Will Johnson, Justin Brown and Matt Spaeth more involved. Julio Jones could also do what he nearly did to the Packers in the second half. A.J. Green and others have proven that the deep sideline bomb can be easy pickings against the Steelers, and it's the one thing the Falcons can still do well.
After the Falcons, the Steelers get the Chiefs and Bengals, two opponents bad enough to beat but good enough to keep the Steelers from completely spacing out. Then come the playoffs if all goes well, where the Steelers know they will not face any comically overlookable teams, because they do not play in the NFC.
Prediction: Steelers 28, Falcons 24
Texans at Colts
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Colts -7.5
The Colts juggled their offensive line when center Jonotthan Harrison suffered a stinger and right guard Joe Reitz was carted off with an ankle injury in the Browns game. Former starter A.Q. Shipley took over at center, with perennial center prospect Khaled Holmes filling in at guard, and the Colts interior pass protection quickly stabilized.
The veteran Shipley was benched for undrafted rookie Harrison in October for never-clarified reasons—Shipley was steady, while Harrison had real problems in the Steelers and Patriots game and was getting pushed around by the Browns—while Holmes suffered a preseason ankle injury and simply disappeared for a few months.
In other words, running back is not the only position where the Colts make crazy, stubborn decisions.
Whoever starts on the Colts line must cope with J.J. Watt, of course, but the Texans' slim playoff hopes hinge not on Watt's weekly sack quota, but the ability to manufacture even a wisp of a passing game with Andre Johnson injured. DeAndre Hopkins is a master at one-handed leaps for Ryan Fitzpatrick knuckleballs, but Hopkins cannot be in two places at once. Tiny Damaris Johnson is a screen specialist, and the reserve receivers are guys who hid in the maintenance shed during last year's regime change.
Prediction: Colts 31, Texans 20
Redskins at Giants
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Giants -7
This week, on the Bravo scripted reality series Real Quarterbacks of Ashburn, Virginia:
Jay tries to reconcile with Robert because he needs someone to go with him on a big trip to New York. "Robert has been, like, a total dweeb about the whole benching thing and junk," Jay says in the confessional.
"Jay shows up and he's like, 'you're my second choice, but I still want to go with you,' responds Robert. "He doesn't even bother to bring a make-up bracelet.'"
Kirk hosts a holiday hot tub luau for all his friends, but nobody shows up, so he ends up crying and drinking National Bohemian all by himself. "This was supposed to be my year. Do you hear me? MY YEAR."
Meanwhile, London makes a surprise return to finally have it out with Jimmy during Jimmy's birthday party. "You are a dummy and a back-stabber!" London cries as they wrestle drunkenly on the floor, knocking over beer bottles and a framed Joe Gibbs photograph. (Note that London's quotes are only slightly paraphrased. And yes, this is supposed to be a show about quarterbacks, but most of the women on those Real Housewives shows are divorced, and none of them actually cook or raise kids, so a retired linebacker and a defensive coordinator can totally duke it on this show.)
Finally, the national football media starts to feel cheap and greasy for covering what has become the nastiest, tawdriest and (worst sins of all) most unsexy and least entertaining soap opera on the dial. Not me though. I'm a pig in this slop.
Prediction: Giants 24, Redskins 3
Raiders at Chiefs
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Chiefs -11.5
The Raiders are simultaneously discussing the possibility of retaining Tony Sparano as head coach and putting out feelers to engineer some kind of bonkers Jim Harbaugh trade. That means their top two coaching candidates are a guy whose team lost 52-0 to the Rams recently and a guy whose team lost to the team that lost 52-0 to the Rams. So either Mark Davis does not watch Raiders games, or Raiders games are the only football games Davis watches.
The Raiders beat the Chiefs last month with the help of a downpour and one of those stubborn Andy Reid abandon-the-run-for-no-reason gameplans. There was some rain in the midweek Kansas City forecast, and Reid has granted Jamaal Charles just 20 total carries in the past two weeks in his quest to make Albert Wilson and Jason Avant the next James Thrash and Jason Avant. So a second Raiders upset is possible, though not likely. Will that make Davis lean toward Sparano? Double-down on his Harbaugh enthusiasm? If it convinces him to give Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton an interview, it may be a sign of progress.
Prediction: Chiefs 21, Raiders 13
Saints at Bears
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Bears -2.5
SEAN PAYTON: Hear ye, hear ye! This meeting of the Knights of NFC South Futility is now in session! Sergeant-at-Arms, recite the oath!
LOVIE SMITH: We, the teams of the NFC South, do solemnly swear to make a mockery of our automatic playoff berth, disappoint our fans as often as possible and play football each week as if we all just met in the parking lot minutes before kickoff.
SEAN PAYTON: Silence! Our first order of business is an application for admission as an honorary member. Representative, come forth and state the name of your team please.
MARC TRESTMAN: The Chicago Bears.
SEAN PAYTON: Silence! Sir Trestman of the Bears, what makes you worthy of acceptance into the Knights of NFC South Futility?
MARC TRESTMAN: Well, we're 5-8. We get blown out a lot. Everyone in the stadium looks kind of embarrassed for us when we take the field …
SEAN PAYTON: Silence! It takes more than a bad record and some 55-14 losses to become a Knight of NFC South Futility. You must truly fit in to our exclusive brotherhood. Members, interrogate this applicant!
RON RIVERA: Sir Trestman of the Bears, do you have a highly-paid quarterback who goes through vicious slumps and whose every facial expression is analyzed for a lack of competitive fire, like my Panthers?
MARC TRESTMAN: We have Jay Cutler. Even my offensive coordinator trolls him.
SEAN PAYTON: Silence!
LOVIE SMITH: That is all well and good, Sir Trestman of the Bears. But I know your fiefdom well, and disappointing quarterbacks grow on trees there. Has your organization recently spent cement mixers full of money on a massive roster overhaul that completely backfired, like my Buccaneers? Have you reached the point where you can be a three-point underdog to a team whose quarterback was in a major car crash five days ago?
MARC TRESTMAN: We broke the bank of Jared Allen, who has five sacks, and on Lamarr Houston, who injured himself celebrating the sack of a backup quarterback during a four-touchdown blowout loss. Also, we threw more money at Cutler.
(Even louder whispers)
SEAN PAYTON: Silence! We are still deliberating!
MIKE SMITH: What you have said so far is impressive. But do both your defensive and offensive lines fly backward on contact like the shuffleboard bowling pins at a Chuck E Cheese? Do your safeties cover the open field like their shoelaces are tied together? In short, can your Bears meet the standards set by my Falcons?
MARC TRESTMAN: We are still trying to dig Will Sutton out the pit where Zach Martin buried him last Thursday night. Chris Conte was supposed to help me with this presentation, but he got stuck behind the velvet waiting rope at his bank and can't figure a way past it.
(Extremely loud murmurs)
SEAN PAYTON: Silence! You have passed every test so far, Sir Trestman of the Bears. But one remains. Do your Bears look like a playoff team on paper? Is your roster full of well-known talent, coached by an offensive mastermind of great pedigree? Have you had multiple chances to put early season stumbles behind you, yet met every opportunity to turn the corner with confusion and indifference, playing your worst football when it counted most? In short, do you have the awesome, universe-bending power to dishearten not just your own fans, but general NFL fans?
MARC TRESTMAN: If that is the criteria, I challenge you to a duel. I the Bears lose, we gain entry to the NFC South.
SEAN PAYTON: And if you win?
MARC TRESTMAN: We return to the surface world, where 6-8 is not a division-leading record.
SEAN PAYTON: You are wise, Sir Trestman of the Bears. I accept your duel. May the most disappointing team lose! May the game be as ugly as possible. And may the stands be filled with Silence!
Prediction: Saints 22, Bears 22. Tie.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.