NFC Is About to Get Real
The Lions and Panthers are making strong pushes for the playoffs, just as we all predicted in August. (Right?) But first things first: All of the NFC’s top teams are on the brink of what should be a wild final seven weeks
One non-Incognito point to ponder this morning, prompted by non-stat-geek Mike Florio and based on 2013 NFL history: If Indianapolis is 20 points better than San Francisco, and San Francisco 24 points better than St. Louis, and Indianapolis plays St. Louis, then Indianapolis obviously should beat St. Louis by 44.
St. Louis beat Indianapolis by 30 Sunday, which apparently was any given Sunday.
On the field, I’d say Week 10 in the NFL belonged to the 1995 expansionists. Jacksonville won its first game of the season, while Carolina won its fifth in a row, a there-are-no-ugly-wins win at San Francisco that left many in Ninerdom wondering, “All right. Who kidnapped Colin Kaepernick, and what have you done with him?” I’ll give you Gus Bradley, Luke Kuechly and Steve Smith, and lots of playoff speculation fodder, soon.
But we have to start with the Incognito in the room. A Beverly Wilshire Hotel room, where Richie Incognito was interviewed by FOX’s Jay Glazer as part of his football and human-being rehab tour. Incognito has been suspended by the Dolphins for his role in the bullying and harassment of his offensive linemate, Jonathan Martin.
Most of what Incognito told Glazer was predictable: I am not a racist, I had no idea I was offending Jonathan Martin, he gave the rough stuff back to me. He said Martin’s departure from the team stunned him. “I never saw it,” he said. “I never saw it coming.” But the three most interesting parts of the interview were tangential to it.
1. To prove his point about their close friendship, Incognito showed Glazer what Glazer said were 1,142 text messages the two men had exchanged in the 19 months they’ve known each other. One from Martin to Incognito, sent last week after Martin bolted from the team, went this way: “It’s insane bro but just know I don’t blame you guys at all. It’s just the culture around football and the locker room got to me a little.” This, a source who knows Martin told me, was a continuation of how Martin continued to respond to a man he felt was his tormenter. He didn’t want to upset Incognito, and sending the it’s-not-your-fault text would avoid making the leader of his position group angry. And I’d bet that’s how Martin will explain the string of friendly texts and exchanges when he’s interviewed by league investigator Ted Wells Wednesday.
2. Glazer said Incognito wouldn’t answer whether Miami coaches ordered him or anyone on the team to “toughen up” Martin because he was playing soft. By not answering, of course, Incognito said plenty.
3. To prove Martin was an equal participant in the bawdy exchanges, Incognito told Glazer that Martin sent him a text saying, “I will murder your whole effing family.” That’s not true, according to a tweet from Martin’s lawyer, David Cornwell. The tweet showed an internet meme of a woman and an odd-looking dog with the caption, “I will murder your whole f—— family” (the picture from the text is to the right, though we’ve censored the language). Hardly the same thing as sending a text with those words. But this is typical of this entire story: Nothing is ever exactly as it seems.
What is real? What is exaggeration? Did Incognito torment Martin to the point of near-mental breakdown? That’s up to Ted Wells to determine. Martin and Incognito need to tell the whole truth when they meet with him.
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The Lions can’t really win a first-round bye. Can they?
Divining the last seven weeks of the NFC pennant race, starting with the round-robin tournament that will determine whether Seattle can hang on to home-field advantage:
Whoever did the schedule last spring was smart. Five teams have six or more wins in the NFC this morning: Seattle (9-1), New Orleans (7-2), San Francisco (6-3), Detroit (6-3), Carolina (6-3). Until Carolina began to sprint to the finish, we all thought Seattle, San Francisco and New Orleans, in some order, were the cream of the conference. Let’s see how the Seahawks, Niners and Saints will try to beat the crap out of one another in the next 28 days:
Nov. 17: San Francisco at New Orleans.
Dec. 2 (Monday): New Orleans at Seattle.
Dec. 8: Seattle at San Francisco.
Carolina isn’t home free … yet. The Panthers play New England next Monday night at home. They also have a tough three-game stretch in 15 December days: at New Orleans, Jets at home, Saints at home. The best sign for the Panthers is a 6-2 conference record. That’s more NFC wins than any other team in the conference except Seattle, which also has six.
Detroit has the most favorable schedule down the stretch. As of this morning, the Lions are a game back of the Saints for the second first-round bye, and while the Saints have four games left against teams at least two games over .500, Detroit has none. Check out the remaining Lions slate.
Nov. 17: At 3-6 Pittsburgh.
Nov. 24: 0-8 Tampa Bay at Ford Field.
Nov. 28: The 5-4 Packers, with Aaron Rodgers’ status very much in doubt 23 days after breaking his collarbone.
Dec. 8: At 5-4 Philadelphia.
Dec. 16: 4-5 Baltimore at Ford Field.
Dec. 22: The 3-6 Giants at Ford Field.
Dec. 29: At 2-7 Minnesota.
It’s always dangerous to draw conclusions about the playoffs with seven games left (particularly in a league in which the Rams beat the Colts by 30), but if you’re a Lions’ fan, you have to be very optimistic this morning. Not only do you have a one-game lead in your division and a sweep of the Bears this year, but also your schedule looks like it was drawn up by the ghost of Bobby Layne.
Carolina is relevant … finally.
Good story out of Carolina’s 10-9 upset of the Niners Sunday at Candlestick Park, about the Panthers finally doing something to get America to notice them.
I was more impressed by their defense, frankly. Entering Sunday’s game, the 49ers were a hot team, averaging 27 points and 343 yards per game. But Carolina held San Francisco to three first-half field goals and just 151 yards for the game. In the last 35 minutes the Niners had the ball seven times. Never scored. The results of the drives: end of half, punt, lost fumble, punt, punt, punt, interception.
In the second half, six drives netted 45 yards. This was no fluky win. The Panthers used the smothering presence of outside rushers Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy to neutralize Colin Kaepernick, who was sacked six times. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards shut off the run for much of the day. And Carolina left San Francisco with the biggest win of the Ron Rivera Era—and the Panthers’ fifth straight victory.
“We came in needing to stop the run, obviously,’’ Kuechly told me afterward. “But after that, we had to know where 85 and 81 [Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin] were on every play. And we had to be sure we kept the option offense under control. We couldn’t let Kaepernick get outside.”
Frank Gore did do some damage, rushing 16 times for 83 yards. But Davis and Boldin caught four balls for 25 yards. And Kaepernick had a brutal day: 46 net passing yards, 16 rushing yards.
“We have a chance to be as good as we want to be,” said Kuechly. “There’s no doubt in our minds we can play with these teams, and we proved it today.”