game plan
Now the Fun Begins
game plan

Now the Fun Begins

December is shaping up to be a wild month, with surprise playoff contenders emerging and new stars rising. For one, who’d have thought two months ago that the Eagles and Cardinals would be playing a game with major postseason implications in Week 13?

So many great games on the schedule this week, as the calendar turns to December on Sunday: Denver-Kansas City II, New Orleans-Seattle I, the massively struggling Colts playing for their lives, a jillion teams playing to keep flickering postseason hopes alive.

I love the Arizona-Philadelphia game. It’s a matchup of a classic, traditional offensive coach, Bruce Arians, with a deep-ball-throwing quarterback, Carson Palmer, against a new-wave offensive coach, Chip Kelly, who like to play fast and has a smart quarterback, Nick Foles, to run his offense the way he wants.

Arizona’s won four in a row, averaging 30.3 points in those wins. Philly’s won three in a row, average 33.3 points.

Palmer’s found his footing recently after a long adjustment period with Arians’ offense (read what Jim Trotter wrote for us this week). He’s made Larry Fitzgerald-alternative Michael Floyd come alive at the other wide receiver slot (last two weeks: 13 catches, 297 yards), and his rating of 112.1 over the last month shows Palmer is becoming one with Arians.

Foles has been such a revelation at quarterback for Philadelphia that Mike Vick, the clear winner of the job in training camp, says it would be foolish for Kelly to make a change at quarterback even though Vick is healthy now. Sixteen touchdowns, no interceptions. It’s no fluke. Just watch Foles. He plays fast, and he has proven you don’t have to be a gazelle to win in Kelly’s scheme. As Kelly said a couple of weeks ago, Foles may not be fleet of foot, but he is fleet of mind.

Here’s how these teams stack up in their respective NFC races: Philadelphia, 6-5, has to win to regain a tie with the Cowboys (7-5) atop the NFC East; the Eagles end the season at Dallas in Week 17, and it’s looking like that could be a very significant game. Arizona, 7-4, is three games behind Seattle in the NFC West with five to play, and realistically is playing for a Wild Card. Problem is, 7-4 San Francisco and 8-3 Carolina are also playing for the Wild Card right now. The Panthers have won seven straight, and the Niners are 6-2 in their last eight, with the narrow losses to Carolina and New Orleans the only scars. It could be three teams fighting for two spots.

As the Wild Card race heats up, Michael Floyd is giving Carson Palmer and the Cardinals a dangerous deep-ball threat opposite Larry Fitzgerald. (Tom Hauck/AP) As the Wild Card race heats up, Michael Floyd is giving Carson Palmer and the Cardinals a dangerous deep-ball threat opposite Larry Fitzgerald. (Tom Hauck/AP)

“We’re going to need some help,” Arians told me this week. “We have to stay on San Francisco’s heels until we play them (in Week 17, at Arizona), and we have to hope Carolina loses. But the way we’re playing right now, I like our chances. Defense and special teams are really playing well, and I’m telling you, Carson’s playing lights out. We go through practices now and the ball never hits the ground. The difference in our team on offense now is confidence. Watch Carson. Watch Michael Floyd. They are confident football players right now. That makes all the difference. Carson’s got two terrific receivers now, and they’re becoming a matchup problem.”

One of the fun things about the NFL at this time of year is watching the hot teams shock the world. A month ago we’d never have figured Philadelphia or Arizona to be in competition for anything but a high draft position. Now, admit it: You wouldn’t be surprised if either one of these teams, playing the way they are, wins a Wild Card game in January.

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Don’t look back—something might be gaining on you. Mike Tomlin found himself in an awkward place on the sideline in Baltimore, and the league will take notice. (Gail Burton/AP) Don’t look back—something might be gaining on you. Mike Tomlin found himself in an awkward place on the sideline in Baltimore, and the league will take notice. (Gail Burton/AP)

Sound Bite of the Week

“I lost my placement as he broke free … I was wrong. I accept responsibility.”

 —Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, after he materially affected a second-half kickoff return by Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones in the Ravens’ 22-20 victory last night in Baltimore. Tomlin was watching the return on the stadium videoboard, and his right foot was on the field of play as Jones zoomed past. Which leads us to …

About Last Night

Baltimore 22, Pittsburgh 20. Re that return play affected by Tomlin: I expect he will be fined for interfering with the play on the field. It should have drawn a flag—an official trailing the play ran right by Tomlin, and certainly should have thrown a flag on him for being too far out on the six-foot-wide white stripe on the sideline, never mind being on the field with his right foot. (Technically, that white stripe should always be clear of players and coaches, but the NFL does an inconsistent job of keeping it clear. That has to change too.) It shouldn’t and won’t matter what Tomlin’s intent was. A coach cannot be on the field during the game at any time. This will certainly be a downgrade for the negligent official on Clete Blakeman’s crew. And for the integrity of the game, I think the league has to come down significantly on Tomlin. It’s clear that Jones veered slightly to avoid contact with Tomlin, and it could very well have played into his being tackled by Cortez Allen of the Steelers instead of running for a touchdown. That cannot be tolerated.

Player You Need To Know This Weekend

The Titans’ playoff hopes are bolstered by the emergence of 2012 first-rounder Kendall Wright at a position of traditional weakness in Tennessee. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) The Titans’ playoff hopes are bolstered by the emergence of 2012 first-rounder Kendall Wright at a position of traditional weakness in Tennessee. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Kendall Wright, wide receiver, Tennessee (number 13). He’s coming off his first 100-yard receiving game, and two weeks ago he had a nine-catch night against the Colts. Last five: 35 catches, 428 yards. It’s obvious he’s Ryan Fitzpatrick’s favorite target, just as he was Robert Griffin III’s at Baylor in 2011. Like Griffin, Wright was a first-round pick in 2012, and he’s justifying the hype: 65 catches, 11.8 yards per catch. This is not a good week for both starting Colt corners, Vontae Davis and Greg Toler, to be nursing groin injuries.

Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend

The Bucs, suddenly on a roll, appear to have found their quarterback in Mike Glennon, who’s thrown 13 TDs against just four interceptions and is completing better than 62 percent of his passes. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images) The Bucs, suddenly on a roll, appear to have found their quarterback in third-round rookie Mike Glennon, who’s thrown 13 TDs against just four interceptions and is completing better than 62 percent of his passes. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

1. The best 3-8 versus 8-3 matchup I can ever remember. Well, I actually can’t remember any of them offhand. But … this Tampa at Carolina game could really be good. The Bucs have won three in a row (and it would be four, had they held onto a 21-0 lead at Seattle a month ago), Mike Glennon is playing like the Bucs don’t need to worry about a quarterback in the 2014 draft, and Greg Schiano has control of this team. And the Panthers are just the hottest team in football. Love this game. If the Bucs can protect Glennon (a 77 percent passer in his last two games) a little, it’ll be competitive into the fourth quarter.

2. Glennon versus Newton. Not that passer rating is that significant (I am more of a yards-per-attempt guy) but it’s a stat the NFL uses to measure quarterbacks, and entering Sunday, Mike Glennon leads Cam Newton, 91.6-88.3.

3. The Jags. Winners of two of three after most of us wiseguys thought they were a good bet to go 0-16, Jacksonville goes to Cleveland with a hot quarterback (Chad Henne) and running back (Maurice Jones-Drew). Memo to Jacksonville owner Shad Khan: Very good hire in Gus Bradley.

Cam Newton has the  Panthers in playoff position as they take on the Bucs in Week 13. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/MCT) Cam Newton has the Panthers in playoff position as they take on the Bucs in Week 13. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/MCT)

4. The Colts, on the edge of a cliff. Never has a two-game division lead with five to play felt so shaky. The 7-4 Colts have allowed 32.4 points per game over their last five and fallen behind to start seven straight games. Lucky for them this is the AFC South we’re talking about, and Houston and Jacksonville (combined record: 4-18) come to Lucas Oil this month. But unlucky for them, Tennessee is playing pretty well and is the big threat to them as we enter the home stretch, and the Titans are this week’s foe.

5. Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty are really good. Plus, Andrew Luck’s trying to do too much, and his line is getting him hit too much. The Tennessee corners—the second- and fourth-rated at the position, respectively, in the respected ProFootballFocus.com rankings—have allowed one touchdown, with 15 passes defensed this year. This is a tougher game for the Colts than people think.

6. Elimination game in the Meadowlands. It’s the 5-6 Dolphins at the 5-6 Jets. But do you trust either team to get to nine wins? I don’t.

7. The fate of Gary Kubiak. I’d be surprised to see him keep his job. The question is when to relieve him? Probably not after this game against the Patriots at home. The Texans play Thursday at Jacksonville.

8. Woe, Canada. Sorry. Some day we’ll give you a great game for that NFL-in-Toronto series. Instead the 2-9 Falcons are coming in to play the Bills at the Rogers Centre on Sunday.

9. Broncos-Chiefs II. Advantage, Peyton … at least with the weather forecast Sunday in Kansas City for the second meeting of Denver and Kansas City in 15 days: mostly sunny, 50 degrees, 3 mph winds.

10. The NFL to come out with The Tomlin Rule. No new legislation is needed, but I expect the league to tell its officials to enforce the rule that coaches and players must stay off the white stripe, and certainly off the field.

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Re the big one in Seattle (Saints-Seahawks) Monday night … I’ll have more about that in Monday’s column.

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