The NFL kicks off the second half of its season this week, and they’re doing it in style! No, wait. What’s the opposite of style? OK, then that.
Obviously, there are still far worse ways to spend your Sunday than by staring at 12 hours worth of NFL football, I’m just saying: The league has seen more exciting weeks.
There are six teams on a bye in Week 9, including always entertaining Denver and Detroit. Sunday Night Football is Indianapolis at Houston, starring the Texans’ Case Keenum. Monday Night Football is Chicago at Green Bay, starring the Bears’ Josh McCown.
Guess how many games there are between above-.500 teams? One. Just Monday night. The rest of are uneven or just plain ugly match-ups, littered with names that will ring throughout the annals of quarterbacking lore. Names like Jason Campbell, Thad Lewis, Kellen Clemens and Mike Glennon. (And don’t forget Keenum and McCown!)
But despite all that, you know what they say: The Alphabet must go on. And now that I’ve roused up your interest to a fever pitch, let’s do it.
A1: It’s hard to find a worthy “Game of the Week” this time around, so I’ll give Steelers/Pats (4:25 pm, CBS) the top spot. Why?
1) I’m biased.
2) It’s always fun to see Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger go at it, even if this rivalry has seen better days, and especially in light of the other QBs under center around the league. It’s been two years (and a day) since these two faced off, and we’re long overdue for another chapter.
3) The Pats are 6-2 but still have a lot to prove; there’s still so much to learn every time they take the field. This week marks another game (hopefully) with both Gronk and Amendola in the mix. We’ll have to see how the offensive line can adjust with the loss of Sebastian Vollmer and how the defense will continue to adjust with the loss of just about everyone.
4) The Steelers are down, but not out. With the Bengals (6-3) loss last night, a win on Sunday puts the Steelers (who would be 3-5) in striking distance, especially when you consider that they still have one game left against Cincinnati and play five of their last eight games at home. A 3-5 record would also throw Pittsburgh into the “heat” of the AFC Wild Card race — a pathetic ordeal that I’ll hit on a little later.
5) I’m biased.
BROTHERS GOTTA HUG: It’s RyanFest 2013 this Sunday (1 pm) at MetLife Stadium. Rex and the Jets vs. Rob and the Saints. With a father’s love, a nation’s hate, and quite a few overplayed foot jokes on the line.
Rex is undefeated for life against his twin bro. He beat Rob twice when they were college coaches. Twice when he was with the Ravens and Rob was with Browns. Twice more since he’s been in New York and Rob was coaching the Cowboys.
But Sunday, Rob starts to even the score. Not only because the Saints offense will be too much for Rex’s D too handle, but because Rob has taken the Saints defense to another level. Compared to last year, about 17 more levels. New Orleans (6-1) is the NFL’s fourth ranked defense in points allowed, 12th in yards allowed and ninth in takeaways.
All bad news for Geno Smith. In this case, taking down the Saints would be quite a feet. (Warned you.)
COWBOY WAY: The Cowboys host the Vikings on Sunday in Dallas, where they'll look to rebound from last week's devastating last second loss to the Lions. Can they do it?
Earlier this week, I was reading the transcript from a chat with ESPN's Cowboys reporter Todd Archer, and that same question was posed.
Basically, do you think the shell shock of last week will affect this week?
Answer: "I really don't. The Cowboys have had so many of these types of losses that they know how to bounce back."
That's so Cowboys.
Although, Adrian Peterson may have a thing or two to say about that "bounce back", assuming the Vikings wake up and start giving him the ball. AP has only 36 total carries in his last three games. That's an outrage!
DEFEATLESS: There’s only one undefeated team left in the NFL, and like we all predicted back in August, that team is the Kansas City Chiefs. This week, KC travels to Buffalo (1 pm), and that’s never an easy place to play. Although one look at the Bills QB situation leaves me wanting to immediately revise that statement.
Right now, starter Thad Lewis is questionable with a rib injury. He’s a true gametime decision. If he plays, he won’t be 100 percent, and even at 100 percent he’s still Thad Lewis. If he doesn’t play, Doug Marrone has two options. A) Turn to undrafted rookie Jeff Tuell or B) Turn to Matt Flynn. In other words, it’s the exact opposite of Sophie Choice but just as difficult.
Either way, the Chiefs (and the NFL’s top-ranked defense) are licking their chops. Andy Reid even more than usual.
ELIMINATION: The Texans are no stranger to abuse at the hands of the Colts. After all, over Houston’s first eight post-expansion seasons, they were 1-15 against Indy. But when Peyton Manning got hurt, and eventually changed teams, the Texans moment had arrived. They won the AFC South in 2011 and again last season. This year, they were the division Big Boss, and the Colts, the scrappy up-and-comers chasing after Houston’s crown.
Fast forward to Sunday: The Colts (5-2) visit the Texans (2-5) with a chance to set Houston back a decade; to basically eliminate them — a team many saw as AFC favorites — from contention after only nine weeks. The Colts will be playing their first game since their huge win over the Broncos, and their first game since losing Reggie Wayne for season, so mental and physical challenges await. Still, there in a much better place than the Case Keenum led Texans.
FADE ROUTE: The Bears started this season 3-0. Life was good with their new coach, inspired QB and still-formidable defense. On Sunday, they’ll walk into the Lambeau (1 pm) at 4-3, led by 34-year-old career backup QB and a defense that ranks 29th in points allowed. Not good. With a loss, Chicago falls two games back in the NFC North, and leaves them in a tough spot eventually steal the one (let’s be honest, both Seattle and San Francisco are getting in) remaining NFC wild card spot.
GROUND AND POUND: When you think about the Packers offense, you think about Aaron Rodgers scrambling around the pocket, throwing darts to the likes of Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones and JerMichael Finley. But when you look at this year’s roster, you see that Nelson is the only one who’s still there and/or healthy. As a result, the Packers have undergone a quiet transformation.
Not that they don’t throw anymore. Rodgers still ranks fifth in passing yards, BUT the Packers (led by rookie Eddie Lacy) rank seventh in rushing attempts, fifth in rushing yards and third in yards per carry.
In related/troubling news for Chicago: The Bears boast the league’s 25th ranked run D.
HOPE IN THE AFC: Only six of 16 AFC teams have a winning record. That’s a very sad commentary on the state of the conference, but it also creates parity-riffic scenarios where all these teams — the Jets, Dolphins, Ravens, Steelers, Browns, Raiders, Bills, Titans, Chargers — honestly, every team but the Jaguars, are still playing for something very real. It’s not pretty, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind.
IT GETS WORSE: No, really Greg Schiano. It gets much worse. Worse than your Buccaneers’ 0-7 start. Worse than running your QB out of town. Worse than alienating your locker room. Worse than MRSA outbreaks and Doug Martin’s torn labrum. Worse than waking up every morning, half expecting the ax.
It’s this Sunday’s trip to Seattle, where the 7-1 Seahawks will be waiting with bloody talons and one super-smiley face.*
* Come on, you know Pete Carroll doesn’t do angry.
JERRY’S WORLD: In the aftermath of Dez Bryant’s sideline blowup, we were all pretty much thinking the same thing. This situation needs more Jerry Jones! And of course, Jerry agrees:
"I used to spend my time on the sideline and probably need to spend some more down there," Jones said on KRLD-FM Tuesday.
Can't wait to see this unfold on Sunday against the Vikings, because as usual, when Jerry Jones thinks he's helping, he's almost always hurting.
KNOW WHERE YOU CAME FROM: There’s not too much to break down in Sunday’s Ravens/Browns game (1 pm). At least nothing that won’t bore you to tears. The Ravens are 3-4 and need a win. They’re favored by two-points and you’d think that — with the desperation factor, the improved health of Ray Rice and the presence of Jason Campbell under center for Cleveland — Baltimore will get the job done.
At the same time, these division games are always close, the Ravens are 1-3 on the road this year and there’s something about this Browns team that just won’t let them die.
But here’s my question: How many current Ravens do you think are aware that their team used to play in Cleveland?
I’ll say maybe 50 percent.
LIFE AFTER NORV: The Chargers should have fired Norv Turner at least one season, probably two seasons, before they did. This year, they're finally reaping the benefits of what a fresh, motivated voice (in this case, Mike McCoy) can do for a football team.
The craziest thing about San Diego’s 4-3 start? In one of their losses, they were up 28-14 in the fourth quarter. In another loss, they fell on a last-second 34-yard touchdown pass. They could easily be 6-1.
And they’ll miss those two victories down the stretch, seeing how they still have four games left against the Broncos and Chiefs.
MISSING THE MARK: The Chargers are on the road in Washington (2-5) on Sunday, and the ‘Skins biggest problem is that they have way more than one big problem.
The defense has been better than it was, but is still far from good. They rank 31st in points allowed and 29th in yards. Also, while their ground game has been consistent (they rank sixth in the NFL), Robert Griffin has struggled big time in the vertical game. He ranks dead last in the league on throws of 20-yards or longer. Statistically, he’s 6-27 with one drop, for 187 yards, two TDs and three INTs.
If there’s a time to break out, it may just be against the Chargers, whose defense ranks 28th in passing yards, 28th in interceptions and 29th in yards/passing attempt.
NOSTALGIA: Super Bowl XXXIV feels like forever ago, and that’s because it was. It’s been 12 long years since Kurt Warner’s Rams beat Steve McNair’s Titans in what was literally the closest Super Bowl in history. And it feels even longer when you look at the current state of the Titans and Rams — two teams that couldn’t be farther from the Super Bowl. Also, two teams that face-off on Sunday in St. Louis.
The Rams (3-5) will have Kellen Clemons back under center, which helps explain why the Titans (3-4) are favored on the road.
OPTIONS: Vikings coach Leslie Frasier has many to choose from in regards to his starting QB. Only problem is that none of them -- not Matt Cassell, not Josh Freeman and definitely not Christian Ponder -- are all that good.
That said, Ponder will get the start on Sunday in Dallas, and in the process, likely neutralize all the negativity brought on by the Jerry Jones sideline effect.
PAGING PERCY: They don’t need him this week against the Bucs, which is probably why they’re not rushing him back, but with Sidney Rice now out for the season with a torn ACL, the return of Percy Harvin now becomes a big issue in Seattle, and could potentially and eventually swing the balance of power in the NFC.
QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Is this the worst guarantee in NFL history?
"I mean, this isn't a potential four-win team," Terrelle Pryor said. "We're definitely going to get to four wins. That part's easy. I'm not worried about that."
That's Terrelle Pryor, starting QB for the 3-4 Oakland Raiders, guaranteeing without any ounce of modesty that . . . his team will win at least one of their last nine games.
Answer: No. The worst guarantee in NFL history came last year when the Panthers Ryan Kaleil took out an ad guaranteeing a Panthers title. Pryor's might he one of the funniest, though.
Either way, let's cut him some slack. The kid has reemerged as a legit NFL QB and probably one of the more consistently entertaining players in the league. His Raiders host the Eagles (3-5) on Sunday. The fight for win No. 4 starts . . . NOW
REINSTATED: The 49ers are off this week, but big news out of San Francisco is that they've brought back troubled and dominant linebacker Aldon Smith. Apparently, that has as much to do with the CBA as it does the 49ers desire to incorporate Smith back into the fray, but if he somehow puts his life back together in the next month or so, his re-addition will rival, maybe even exceed what the Seahawks stand to gain from Percy Harvin.
SHOCKER: For one second, rewind your life back to late August. The sun is shining. The birds are singing. The Mileys are twerking. And all of sudden, an angel appears before you with a really random question: “Hey, want a sneak peek at the lines for Week 9?” You say yes, scan down the list, and there’s only one game that blows your mind.
“Wait, the Falcons are eight-point underdogs at Carolina?”
The Falcons are toast. It's a crying shame that they didn't trade Tony Gonzalez to a contender. As for the Panthers, between a legitimately dominant defense and Cam Newton's newfound consistency, this 4-3 start is no fluke.
Expect them to win and cover.
TIGHT END TEST: One more quick note on the Ryan Bowl. If the Jets have any chance of beating the Saints on Sunday, they'll have to stop Jimmy Graham. And according to reports, they plan to drop that responsibility on Antonio Cromartie.
In closing, the Jets still have very little chance of beating the Saints.
UPSET OF THE WEEK: Not crazy about any potential upsets this week. There are too many potential blowouts and other games between teams that are pretty equally awful.
On that note, I'll take the Rams over the Titans. Call it the Jeff Fisher against his former team factor. He'll have his boys ready to go, even if those "boys" include Kellen Clemens.
VERY GOOD NEWS: For the first time this season, the Jaguars will not lose on Sunday!
One of the many perks of a Bye Week.
WAITING GAME: That's what most young quarterbacks are faced with when they enter this league. They can do nothing but sit back and wait for an opportunity. And often times it's the only shot they get.
Not Nick Foles. This week in Oakland, thanks to an injury to Michael Vick, not to mention Vick's general ineffectiveness, Foles has yet another chance -- his third this season -- to officially earn the keys to Chip Kelly's offense.
If it doesn't work out? Eh, I'm sure he'll get a few more shots.
X-NFL PLAYER: That's the hope here for Brandon Meriweather, who was suspended for last week's game against the Broncos, but will return for Washington this week. He should be gone. Out of the league. While there are so many helmet-to-helmet hits that are ticky tacky and/or unavoidable, his are almost always significant and delivered with intent.
It's enough already.
YESTERDAY’S NEWS: A nice win for the Dolphins last night against Cincinnati, then again, after four straight losses, any win is nice. On the other hand, it was a pretty brutal defeat for the Bengals.
Not only did they lose a chance to break even farther from the AFC North pack, but they also lost star DL Geno Atkins for the year with an ACL.
Pure craziness and chaos in the AFC this year. And we're only halfway through the regular season.
ZERO CHANCE: That it gets any less crazy from here. More than any season in recent memory, especially in the AFC, it looks like the path to the championship isn't a matter of outplaying the competition, but more outlasting them. And just hoping you still have a leg to stand on come judgement day.
Enjoy the games
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine
The NFL kicks off the second half of its season this week, and they’re doing it in style! No, wait. What’s the opposite of style? OK, then that.