NFL Week 12: Mike Tanier's Previews and Score Predictions
In this week's edition of Game Previews:
• The 49ers try to motivate themselves to play in the kind of game that should motivate any NFL team.
• Matt Ryan wears a brace because he likes the way it makes his ankle look chunky.
• A four-part Peyton Manning saga that seemed like a good idea four weeks ago comes to an unfulfilling conclusion, like the final season of Lost.
• Dennis Allen gets the substitute-teacher treatment from the Saints defense.
• Jeff Fisher spends 534 words straddling the line between "unintentionally ironic" and "grossly irresponsible."
• The Seahawks and Steelers relive the glorious officiating of Super Bowl XL. (No way that blows up the comment thread.)
And much more.
Game Previews are listed in the order that you are supposed to read them. All times Eastern.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4) at Seattle Seahawks (5-5), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
This rematch of Super Bowl XL harks back to a simpler time when NFL officiating at least made enough sense that you could tell when one team was getting totally hosed.
Super Bowl XL is still a sore subject for many fans. Seahawks fans still pout about it no matter how often you remind them of the Fail Mary (i.e. Russell Wilson's "Tuck" moment) or the fact that they are still in the wild-card race because a back judge applied some frontier justice to the illegal bat rule against the Lions.
Steelers fans bristle, as if admitting that the referees stopped just short of asking Jerome Bettis for his autograph in the Super Bowl would rip the championship banner off the wall. That Super Bowl may have been the worst-officiated championship game in American sports history, a relic from an era where NFL officials would follow up one ticky-tack call with four or five others against the same team just to prove they were being consistent. Nowadays, they just blow random whistles and allow the final 10 seconds of each game to descend into anarchy.
Super Bowl XL was also nearly a decade ago. The Seahawks and Steelers have met twice since then. And the Seahawks have not scored a single point in those two games, losing 21-0 in 2007 and 24-0 in 2011. Yes, the last point the Seahawks scored against the Steelers was Josh Brown's extra point after Jerramy Stevens' touchdown catch from Matt Hasselbeck in the third quarter of the Super Bowl.
The Seahawks were pretty good in 2007 and OK in 2011. There was no logical reason for them to have been shut out twice. Maybe a snake-bit feeling still hung over the team. Sigh, if we score a touchdown they will just call offensive pass interference anyway. Of course, the Seahawks who lost those games were not these Seahawks; Russell Wilson was still in high school during Super Bowl XL, and Richard Sherman was a freshman wide receiver at Stanford.
This may not be a Super Bowl, but it's a critical game for both teams. The Seahawks need to beat an opponent of substance to base their wild-card bid on something besides their trophy case. A win will also allow them to gain some ground on the loser of the Vikings-Falcons game.
Ben Roethlisberger's mutant healing powers have placed the Steelers atop the AFC wild-card standings; they could also use a win to put more distance between themselves and the pack, and a division title is not out of the question after a pair of Bengals losses. Both teams belong in the playoff picture: The Seahawks and Steelers rank fifth and seventh, respectively, in the NFL in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings, having sorted out some of their early-season offensive and defensive issues.
This is a close game to call—close enough for the 12th Man to make a difference. Let's hope the referees don't end up making the difference instead.
Prediction: Seahawks 22, Steelers 20
Buffalo Bills (5-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (5-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
Do you love blitzes?
Do you like safety blitzes? Corner blitzes? Zone blitzes? Overload blitzes? Double A-gap blitzes? Jailbreak blitzes? Red-dog fake blitzes that turn out to be deep zone coverage in disguise? Four-man rushes so devious they are scarier than blitzes?
You saw what the Bills could do to Tom Brady and his millennial offensive line Monday night. Rex Ryan isn't a wild blitzer; he's all about deception. He'll threaten the quarterback with eight potential pass-rushers and then send three or four rushers on most downs. Those four might be a safety, a cornerback, a linebacker and a defensive end, not the four expected linemen.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has a similar philosophy, though his use of personnel is much different. Sutton deploys lots of 2-3-6 groupings, even on early downs, whereas Ryan prefers four down linemen. With so many linebackers and safeties on the field, Sutton can blitz from every angle and still have fast defenders to drop into coverage.
Pro Football Focus keeps track of which defenders rush the quarterback on each passing play. Here are some of the Chiefs' percentages:
- Safeties: 43 rushes. Safety Husain Abdullah has blitzed 31 times.
- Cornerbacks: 11 rushes.
- Inside linebackers: 68 rushes. Derrick Johnson has blitzed 51 times.
To give you a better idea of the confusion Sutton likes to cause, Justin Houston has dropped into coverage 75 times; Tamba Hali has done so 47 times. Sutton will drop one or both of his outstanding pass-rushers into coverage so he can hit you with Johnson up the middle and Abdullah off the edge. Try anticipating that, Tyrod Taylor.
Here are some Bills rush percentages:
- Safeties: 51 rushes. Corey Graham has blitzed 30 times.
- Cornerbacks: 20 rushes.
- Inside linebackers: 82 rushes.
- Outside linebackers: 151 rushes. Keep in mind that the Bills run a base 4-3 defense, with top pass-rushers Mario Williams and Larry Hughes classified as defensive ends.
This game has major wild-card implications; both the Chiefs and Bills have favorable upcoming schedules, so they should stay in the mix until the end. A head-to-head win will mean a lot, and it's going to go to the team whose quarterback has a long track record of enduring a dozen knockdowns per week but squirting just enough passes to his running backs and tight end to keep his team alive.
Prediction: Chiefs 22, Bills 21
Minnesota Vikings (7-3) at Atlanta Falcons (6-4), Sunday, 1 p.m.
D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier in the week that Matt Ryan has been wearing a brace on his left knee during games.
We knew it! We knew Ryan has been hiding an injury for weeks. Scan the photos a little more thoroughly, and we bet you will find that he is also hiding rotator cuff scars, a flak jacket and maybe a glass eye and an iron lung.
Ledbetter cautions that for years Ryan has sometimes worn a brace on his knee strictly for the support it provides. Kids these days with their high-fashion unnecessary orthopedics! Go into a cool club these days: It's all casts, braces and slings. Next week, Cam Newton is going to give a press conference wearing a sequin-studded, fur-lined My Little Pony neck brace.
Except that no healthy person wears a clunky brace on a joint just because he likes the feel of it. Also, Ryan is 30 years old.
Teddy Bridgewater may be in the market for some fashionable concealed protection after the beating he took at the hands of the Packers. He has now been sacked 30 times, tied for the fourth-highest total in the NFL. Because Bridgewater gives up ground trying to scramble, his sacks have cost the Vikings 229 yards. Only Ryan Tannehill, with a shocking 298 yards (also on 30 sacks), has lost more yardage than Bridgewater, who gets a break this week against a defense with a league-low 12 sacks all season.
The Falcons and Vikings are potential postseason gate-crashers whose young rosters are still finding themselves. The Vikings don't just rely on Bridgewater but also Adrian Peterson, a defense full of up-and-comers and a deep stable of good-not-great offensive role players. The Falcons' nucleus is still forming, forcing them to rely on Ryan to get the ball to Julio Jones. And whether it's due to an injury or some other factor, Ryan hasn't been good enough lately.
Prediction: Vikings 24, Falcons 17
New York Giants (5-5) at Washington Redskins (4-6), Sunday, 1 p.m.
The NFC East, summarized and ranked in descending order of storyline sizzle:
Dallas Cowboys: The team that lost its starting quarterback, spent seven weeks acting like the middle school class whose substitute teacher never showed up, won one sloppy game when the starting quarterback returned, generated a lot of "WE WILL RUN THE TABLE NOW!" nonsense and then remembered that its starting quarterback: (A) was always prone to nasty turnover jags and (B) was still an increasingly brittle 35-year-old.
Philadelphia Eagles: That super-smart kid you knew in college who aced philosophy classes and hacked into computers for fun but who refused to even conform enough to societal norms to hold a job in the modern dot-com environment, squandered a few promising opportunities and burned through money and friendships is now the most literate, fascinating bartender in the Bowery.
Washington Redskins: The team that celebrates its occasional wins with catchphrases, with GIFs, with T-shirts, with affirmations that this particular win proved the franchise is now making all the right decisions, with declarations that the quarterback is about to fulfill the potential we all pretend to think he has, and then with two ugly losses.
New York Giants: The flawed team with a stable leadership structure, a veteran quarterback, plenty of playmakers and a suddenly healthy defense that just got its top pass-rusher back and is also welcoming back starting cornerback Prince Amukamara and several nicked-up contributors. This team also has a one-and-a-half-game lead on the competition and an established track record of finishing seasons well when the playoffs are on the line.
Prediction: Giants 31, Redskins 20
Arizona Cardinals (8-2) at San Francisco 49ers (3-7), Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
In the 49ers tunnel, heading out to the field:
Anquan Boldin (jumping up and down): Game time! Game time! Let's go, guys! Let's get pumped! Woot! Woot!
Ahmad Brooks: Meh.
Boldin: What's wrong, man?
Brooks: I'm just not up for this game. I can't get pumped up for playing the Cardinals.
Boldin: Can't get pumped up for the Cardinals? They're a division rival! They're 8-2! This is a chance to prove we need to be taken seriously.
Brooks: Eh. Whatevs. It's a cloudy, gloomy day. I don't play well when it is gloomy.
Boldin: Ahmad, we play in San Francisco (cough, cough). We have to be able to play on cloudy days! NaVorro, talk some sense into Eeyore here.
NaVorro Bowman: I just hope Chris Johnson gets all the carries. We focused all week on stopping Chris Johnson. This defense is a single-purpose Chris Johnson tackling machine.
Boldin: What if they switch things up and give more carries to Andre Ellington or David Johnson?
Bowman: (Gasp!) Don't say things like that! Tackle someone other than the running back we prepared for? What if his running style is slightly different, like Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls? After a week of preparing for CJ2K, we'll trip over our own feet and fall on our faces trying to stop Ellington or the other Johnson. ... You don't know this stuff because you never played for a defense-oriented team.
Boldin: That's...really not true. This is getting weird. Blaine, it's up to us. Are you psyched, buddy?
Blaine Gabbert: I'm poised.
Boldin: That's the spirit. I think.
Gabbert: I'm poised and ready to show determination and effort. And poise.
Boldin: That's all well and good, but this isn't a runway fashion show. We need you to do more than look like you are trying your best…
Gabbert: If I am poised and show determination and effort, I will get credit for being a better option than Colin Kaepernick. That will be sufficient to fulfill expectations.
Boldin: Someone needs to motivate this team. Coach! Coach!
Jim Tomsula: Hey, guys! Don't forget the game plan. If we keep it within two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, we'll punt and make the score respectable!
Boldin: That explains everything. I'm trapped on a team so committed to going through the motions that even NaVorro has been infected. If only there was a team out there that rehabilitated veterans and turned them back into superstars—maybe one that still has an old friend or two on the roster, in a city where I know my way around…
(Light bulb appears overhead.)
Coach Arians! Give me a Cardinals uniform! Rescue me!!!
Prediction: Cardinals 34, 49ers 20
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-5) at Indianapolis Colts (5-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
Dear Jameis Winston,
Three or four years from now, when you have a few Pro Bowl seasons and playoff wins under your belt, you are going to suffer a few injuries. You will try to play through them, because you are a competitor (and, hey, your rookie contract will be set to expire and you will be looking for a $75 million payday). But the injuries will cause a short slump and then land you on the injured list for several weeks.
When that happens, some old journeyman will take your place: Ryan Fitzpatrick, a McCown…heck, it could be Carson Palmer by then. The name does not matter. What matters is that this clipboard jockey will inevitably go on a hot streak. He'll lead narrow victories against the worst teams in the league. The defense will bail him out with three interceptions when he throws two. After three games or so, many fans will throw you behind the television like last year's copy of Madden. The media will be even worse. Reporters are middle-aged dudes, Jameis, and we get major man-crushes when one of our own makes good.
Don't point to the stats when the journeyman gets hot. Don't mention that the running game only averages 81.3 yards per game and 3.01 yards per rush when the old guy gets the start because defenses can stack up against the run. Don't point out that your No. 1 receiver caught just two short passes in the last game or that the deep passing game is nonexistent without you.
We will love the backup because his stats are terrible and the offense looks like a rickety jalopy with him in the lineup. We will talk ourselves into some nonsense about "finding ways to win" or "managing the game" and pretend that you were hurting the team by throwing 40-yard passes and diving for first downs. We always do.
Remain calm during the journeyman-quarterback infatuation period. Tune the media out. Rehabilitate your injuries and study film. Good organizations don't buy into the crush, and smart young quarterbacks don't get sucked into the story. After a few weeks, the journeyman will run out of tricks, you will thank him for the plucky wins that kept your Buccaneers in the playoff race, and fans will re-embrace you the moment you help beat a good team with some touchdown passes that travel more than 20 feet in the air.
File all of this advice away for future reference, Jameis. In the meantime, play this Sunday the way you did last Sunday and do another young quarterback a solid by putting an end to an old-guy bromance.
Prediction: Buccaneers 27, Colts 20
St. Louis Rams (4-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (8-2), Sunday, 1 p.m.
Jeff Fisher needed 534 words to explain why Case Keenum remained in the game despite obvious concussion symptoms last week. It was the kind of shaggy-dog story a man tells his wife when she finds lipstick on his collar. And strange hotel charges on his credit card bill. And a picture of a cocktail waitress captioned this is my mistress in his wallet.
Fisher appealed to his background (I sat on the committee that wrote the concussion protocols; what impudent whelp dares question me?), added lots of irrelevant details (did ya notice that the Ravens were offside) and slipped in the zinger "for whatever reason, we went on with the two plays" once everyone's eyes had glazed over. You'll never hear Bill Belichick invoking "whatever reason" for anything that happens on his sideline, ever.
Whatever. It took 534 words to dance around the fact that the Rams endangered the health of their quarterback.
How many words would it take Fisher to explain just what made him think Keenum was a viable starter in the first place, or why Keenum was being rushed through protocols after having demonstrated that he is far worse than Nick Foles?
How many words would it take Fisher to explain how a team with a Rookie of the Year candidate at running back has scored 44 points in the last three games?
How many words would it take Fisher to explain how a team that picked 11 players in the first two rounds of the draft since 2012 is 4-6 and on a three-game losing streak?
We don't have enough space on this slide for Fisher's answers to these questions, though they are probably doozies. Wins over the Broncos last year and the Colts in 2013, as well as regular upsets within the NFC West, have given the Rams a spoiler reputation. But the Rams are 7-13-1 against eventual playoff teams since 2012, courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com. It turns out they are just as mediocre against contenders as they are against everyone else. Meanwhile, despite back-to-back losses, the Bengals are as fundamentally sound as the Rams are battered, bewildered and probably a little bitter.
But get those rambling explanations ready for the end of the season, coach. Team owner Stan Kroenke will be dying for a laugh during the exit interview.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Rams 10
(Note: Word count taken from official press conference transcript and only includes initial response, not answers to follow-up questions.)
Miami Dolphins (4-6) at New York Jets (5-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
One reason Dan Campbell takes so much ribbing here at Game Previews is because we have all worked for bosses like him, the kind who think that slogans, pep talks and meetings are actually the substance of management, not just the lip service and window dressing. Bosses like Campbell think calling the meeting actually addresses the problem, even if nothing gets resolved at the meeting—just like they think that motivational posters actually motivate people. Campbell sounds like the boss who calls you in for a pre-meeting to discuss what you will talk about at a status report meeting and then schedules a mandatory weekend retreat just before a deadline to alleviate workplace stress.
Campbell held what he called a "call-out" or "take-ownership" session Monday. Dolphins players watched film of the Cowboys loss and owned up to their mistakes to their teammates.
"That's a hard pill to swallow. But they did that," Campbell told reporters. "To me, that's a step in the right direction."
NFL teams generally watch film of the previous game at the start of the week. Players are singled out for their mistakes, by coaches if not themselves. Holding players accountable for mistakes is pre-remedial coaching. Are there, say, plans to get Dolphins players past the "my bad" stage they remain stuck in every time they face a decent opponent? Hey, one step at a time.
Ndamukong Suh reportedly held his own inspirational meeting, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport. It's a wonder the Dolphins even have time to practice with all the actualization going on.
The Jets lost a frustrating game of their own to a beatable opponent last Sunday, but Todd Bowles was too busy to schedule a drum-circle session. He had to prepare for a week without Darrelle Revis (concussion). He had to brush off a wisp of a quarterback controversy by reaffirming that while Ryan Fitzpatrick is bad, he is still not Geno Smith. (Not Bowles' exact words, of course). Bowles also released Quinton Coples, a former first-round pick who had no real role in the current Jets defense. Nothing gets players to hold themselves accountable like someone losing his scholarship.
Expect the Dolphins to pressure Fitzpatrick into his signature scattershot bombs and challenge Buster Skrine and Marcus Williams (two decent defenders). That's assuming the Dolphins find time to game-plan in between all of this week's trust-building exercises.
Prediction: Jets 24, Dolphins 17
New Orleans Saints (4-6) at Houston Texans (5-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
In the Saints' defensive meeting room, early in the week:
Dennis Allen: OK guys, as you all know, I have been promoted to defensive coordinator. That means there will be some changes around here. Say, why are none of your chairs facing front? Oh I get it: It's the old middle-school joke where you turn your desks around for the new teacher.
Cameron Jordan: No sir. Coach Ryan was just never sure which way we were supposed to face.
Allen: Well, I guess that explains why Breaux's chair is nailed to the ceiling. Come on down, Delvin.
Delvin Breaux: Thanks, coach. The blood has been rushing to my head all year.
Allen: OK, let's get started. Can anyone tell me how many defensive players should be on the field at once? Anyone?
Jordan: Umm…between nine and 13?
Allen: Well, that's technically correct. Maybe I should start with something more basic. Let me switch on the projector and show you a picture of the Texans' most dangerous offensive player, DeAndre Hopkins.
Brandon Browner: GRAB HIM!!!! (Runs to the front of the room and flings himself at the screen).
Allen: No, Brandon. You are supposed to cover Hopkins, not bear-hug him. Also, that is just a projection image. Brandon? Can someone please pry Brandon off the screen?
Jordan: I'll fetch the crowbar.
Allen: OK. Well, at least Brandon knows his assignment. Can anyone…Jairus, why do you have your hand up?
Jairus Byrd: Can I go to the nurse's office?
Allen: It's more of a "trainer's office," Jairus. Go ahead.
Jordan: He's not coming back. You know that, right?
Allen: Yes, I saw Summer School. Now, here is some film of a simple screen pass. Can anyone explain their assignment on a simple screen pass?
Jordan: Try to sack the quarterback and ignore all the blockers and running back sneaking off to my left.
Breaux: Wait, was I supposed to be on the field for this play?
Browner: Hit someone and punish them for fooling us with such trickery!
Allen: Sigh. I really need to send my resume to LSU.
Prediction: Saints 27, Texans 16
Oakland Raiders (4-6) at Tennessee Titans (2-8), Sunday, 1 p.m.
Marcus Mariota has completed just 19 of 63 deep pass attempts this season for 489 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions (all stats courtesy of the Football Outsiders internal database). As you probably know, a "deep" pass in the official play-by-play is any pass that travels 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in the air; many "deep" passes are just ordinary, moderate-length throws, not bombs.
Eight of Mariota's 19 completions netted 20 yards or less, so he's not exactly a mad bomber. His deep game needs work, and Mike Mularkey and his coaches need to give him more opportunities to go deep instead of dinking, dunking and waiting for the game to slip away.
Derek Carr's game was limited to mostly short passes last year. This season, he is 26-of-50 on deep passes for 780 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions. The differences? You name them: experience, a new offense, Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree.
Carr has not exactly completed a transformation into John Elway. The Lions limited him to one deep completion last week, and the Raiders suffered other offensive growing pains. Carr and Mariota are both on a journey. Carr is further along, and while the Raiders don't exactly have all the answers, the Titans should look across the field to see what a young quarterback can grow into if his organization starts putting the correct pieces in place around him.
Prediction: Raiders 30, Titans 24
San Diego Chargers (2-8) at Jacksonville Jaguars (4-6), Sunday, 1 p.m.
The perfect NFL schedule inconveniences either the Jaguars or the Chargers each week. You can picture the league brass studying the schedule in the spring.
The Jaguars get back-to-back real home games? With 10 days of rest in between? That won't do. Can we send them to Manchester to play a bunch of soccer hooligans in between and call it a "home game"? No? Well, how about a three-games-in-12-days stretch, with the Patriots somewhere in the middle? Drat. Is Wednesday Morning Football a thing yet? Why not? Oh well, if the Jaguars must have a semi-tolerable stretch of schedule, make sure the Chargers fly across the country to play them in an early game.
The Jaguars actually enjoyed a three-game winning streak in 2013. They beat the Texans, the Browns and…the Texans again, back in that season when Matt Schaub aged 10 years in two weeks and the Gary Kubiak playbook was available as a free iTunes download. The last time the Jaguars beat three different teams in three straight games was 2010, the era of Jack Del Rio and David Garrard.
The 2015 Jaguars are perfectly capable of beating three straight weak opponents, and the Chargers certainly qualify as weak. The rest of the Jaguars schedule is full of winnable games and manageable travel. They won't leave the Southeast again this year. Maybe Gus Bradley will finally get some traction under the never-ending rebuilding project, just as Mike McCoy's regime is skidding helplessly into a ditch.
Prediction: Jaguars 24, Chargers 20
Baltimore Ravens (3-7) at Cleveland Browns (2-8), Monday, 8:30 p.m.
The formula for creating the least watchable Monday night game possible:
• Start with the Ravens: Watching the Ravens is like driving across the prairie in the fog listening to brimstone preachers on the AM radio with an angry girlfriend in the seat next to you and no air conditioning.
• Replace Joe Flacco with Matt Schaub: Schaub wasn't much fun to watch when he was successful, which was three years and about 30 pick-sixes ago (counting Raiders practices from two summers ago).
• Remove Justin Forsett: Now Marc Trestman has an excuse for never, ever running the ball. Imagine Schaub, a play-action passer in his glory days, throwing the ball on 75 percent of first downs. Breakfast starting to bubble back up yet?
• Officiate the game like a typical Monday night game: The Ravens bring officiating lunacy everywhere they go. Monday night is the place the rulebook goes to get shredded. The last time the Ravens played on Monday night, Chris Johnson ran for a 62-yard gain after his forward progress was stopped for half a commercial break. Dumb roughness fouls plus arguments over illegal formations plus typical Monday night referee tomfoolery equals a 25-penalty game that lasts until 1:45 a.m.
• Add the Browns: The most interesting thing about the Browns, besides you know who, is trying to figure out who the greatest disappointment on the roster is. Justin Gilbert? Dwayne Bowe? Have you seen Brian Hartline drop a pass lately? Have you seen Barkevious Mingo at all lately? Oh, wait, we almost forgot...
• Remove Johnny Manziel in the most gut-wrenching way possible: Because watching Manziel overcome his demons and at least put up a valiant effort might inspire a tiny shred of optimism about the human condition, as well as some entertainment value, and we can't have either.
There: This may be the least watchable Monday night game possible. Only one ingredient is missing: Color Rush uniforms. But that's a topic for a Thursday night game.
Prediction: Ravens 9, Browns 6
New England Patriots (10-0) at Denver Broncos (8-2), Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
A November Middle-Aged Journey of Self-Discovery (Part 4 of 4)
The old man saw the prince sitting at their familiar table among the chess players at the edge of the park. He never ages a day, the old man thought as he limped ahead. He had not missed a match in 14 years, and even though he could no longer play, nothing would keep him from showing up.
"Is that him?" said the kid trailing behind him. "I thought he would be taller."
The old man turned and wagged a finger. "Size doesn't matter in the game you're about to play," he said.
The prince stood and embraced the old man regally. He turned and acknowledged the kid with a smile that mixed warmth with a hint of condescension. "If I knew we were bringing the children, I would have invited Jimmy," the prince said.
"After Monday night, I thought you might need Jimmy," the old man replied.
The prince laughed heartily. "Ah yes, the mighty, blustery Rex. Sometimes, it's better to defeat an enemy by hunger than by steel. Is the lad ready to play?"
The old man held the chair for the kid, then sat between them and studied the chessboard. The prince had already made two moves. That was how they always played: The prince two moves ahead by virtue of the hooded old master who still serves as his mentor and adviser. The game began, and the kid began maneuvering pawns into position.
"Ah, the Kubiak opening," the prince said. "Pawns laterally zone-blocking en passant in the middle of the board."
"Yeah," the kid replied. "And get ready for the Phillips gambit mid-game: an all-out pincer attack on your king."
The prince grinned. "Perhaps my old rival did not tell you, but I am well-versed in the Kubiak opening and Phillips gambit. I conquered both tactics years ago."
"If I did not know better," the old man said, "I would say success has made you arrogant."
"Nonsense. I guard myself against flattery. I know how fickle and hypocritical the masses can be." With a few deft moves, the prince countered the kid's chessboard attacks, moved his king to safety and mounted his own surprise attack. "But your young protege must learn not to take by force what is better taken by deception."
The old man watched the prince move carefully and methodically. The prince was never ruffled, never surprised. It had not always been this way. The old man used to be able to make the prince squirm now and then. Was it only two years ago that the prince stormed away from the table in bitter defeat? How quickly time had changed them into a creaky old codger and an almost divine figure.
"You have grown wise before you have grown old, my friend," the old man said as the prince forced the kid to topple his king in checkmate. "But I have gained wisdom on my middle-aged journey of self-discovery as well."
"Oh? Share this wisdom, then, and know the truth will not offend me."
"I know how it ends now," the old man said. "I know the pain. The doubt. The humiliation. It happens in the course of weeks, not years. Even for legends, the precipice is steep and the fall is perilous. Time is the enemy even you cannot checkmate."
The prince looked at the young upstart who battled him valiantly, then back at his old rival. He, too, remembered their old duels fondly. But talk of mortality suddenly made him less than gracious. "I know thee not, old man," the prince said, folding his arms to signify that there would be no more games that day. The old man walked away without saying farewell.
"I am sorry that did not go well," the kid said as he scurried behind the old man, who strode quickly through the park despite the pain in his foot. "I wanted to end your journey on a high note."
The old man stopped and turned to his young squire. The prince has to be that way, he thought. Everyone sees what he appears to be, but few can see what he truly is: frail, mortal, vulnerable and, despite his forever-youthful features, getting old. "My journey—our journey—is not over yet," the old man said. "That's what this month has taught me. Nothing is set in stone. And the story goes on, even if you aren't the lead character anymore."
With that, the old man and his protege walked together into an uncertain future.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Broncos 21