1. Seattle (11-2). A Twitter follower asked me the other day if I liked my preseason Super Bowl champion pick (Patriots over Seahawks). Yes. Why, yes I do still like the Seahawks part of that equation. I’m not much bothered by a cliff-hanging loss to San Francisco in which the Seahawks held their archrivals to 19 points and 318 yards, on the road on a short week when the Niners had vastly more for which to play.
2. Denver (11-2). At some point the secondary’s going to be a true Achilles heel for this team. But celebrate the quality of this receiving corps. Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker all had a touchdown catch, giving them 10, 11, 11 and 8, respectively, for the year.
3. New Orleans (10-3). So what did we learn Sunday night, other than Marques Colston’s one of the great players of this era who we never talk about? Just this: No one’s winning a playoff game in New Orleans. Just not happening.
4. New England (10-3). Gronk gone. But you know what I’d be worried about? The defense—the one that allowed 494 yards to the Cleveland Browns at home, that surrendered a 391-yard passing day to Jason Campbell. Yup, that’s what would worry me.
5. Carolina (9-4). It makes no sense to settle for field goals in the Superdome. That’s the lesson offensive coordinator Mike Shula should take out of this game for 2014 and beyond (and perhaps for a January game).
6. San Francisco (9-4). So you say you want to see more offensive production out of Colin Kaepernick and friends? So would offensive coordinator Greg Roman. But when the D’s allowing 13.5 points a game over the last six, it’s a lot easier to get by without the fireworks.
7. Cincinnati (9-4). Tough call, where to put the Bengals right now. This is probably the best Cincinnati team since the Boomer Esiason days. Andy Dalton, with three games to go, is 25-16 in touchdown-to-interception differential; last year he was 27-16 for the season. The difference? He should throw for 4,000 yards this year for the first time, thanks to Marvin Jones giving him a legitimate second option at receiver.
8. Philadelphia (8-5). Antarctica’s Team.
9. Kansas City (10-3). I do not want to demean the victory in Washington in the least, but the Chiefs were playing Team Chaos Sunday. Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster, combined, would have been a gigantic load for any foe, though.
10. Indianapolis (8-5). Well, at least the Kenyan rugby player, Daniel Adongo, played.
11. Arizona (8-5). On Friday, after a week of little practice for Carson Palmer because of a bum elbow, coach Bruce Arians pshawed about any chance he’d miss the game against the Rams Sunday. “He’ll play,” Arians said. The Cardinals got the sore-winged Palmer’s best game of the year, 27 of 32 in a 30-10 win over St. Louis.
12. Baltimore (7-6). Maybe I overrate the return of Dennis Pitta to give Joe Flacco his security blanket back. But I don’t think so. Baltimore has three losable games left (at Detroit, New England, at Cincinnati), and Flacco needs all the receiving he can get with the running game still not out of the woods.
13. Detroit (7-6). Things are starting to trend downward after a 6-3 start; Detroit’s gone 1-3 in its last four, with seven Matthew Stafford turnovers in that time (two fumbles lost, five interceptions). The Bears can match the Lions’ record atop the NFC North with a win tonight. Of more concern to Lions fans is that Green Bay is still within striking distance.
14. Dallas (7-5). I probably have too much of a gulf between Dallas and Philly here. I just like the way the Eagles are peaking, and the Cowboys, on the road against a desperate team tonight, scare me.
15. Miami (7-6). Charles Clay is making me forget about Dustin Keller. That’s a versatile, promising tight end who has a great feel for the game.
The Awards Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Drew Brees, quarterback, New Orleans. Peyton Manning needed 191 games to get to 50,000 career passing yards, the fastest to get to 50K before Sunday night. In Brees’ 183rd game, he got there, with a 30-of-42 night and 313 yards in the 31-13 rout of Carolina. Brees is fortunate, obviously, to have great receivers like Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, but Sean Payton has the perfect low-ego trigger-man for an offense that’s next-to-impossible to stop in the climate-controlled ’dome.
LeSean McCoy, running back, Philadelphia. The best rushing day by an Eagle ever—29 carries, 217 yards, two touchdowns—was the vital piece of the puzzle in a loony win over Detroit in eight inches of snow at Lincoln Financial Field. And in so doing, the invaluable McCoy moved closer to the rushing title. He has 1,305 yards, and an 84-yard lead over Adrian Peterson—who limped off Sunday in Baltimore with a mid-foot sprain—with three games to play.
Frank Gore, running back, San Francisco. His 17-carry, 110-yard rushing day, against a defense that looked impenetrable Monday night against New Orleans, was the vital piece for the Niners in the narrow win over Seattle. The Niners played keepaway on a six-minute drive that resulted in a winning 22-yard field goal, and the big play on the drive was a 51-yard gallop by Gore, finishing intelligently by diving on the ground just shy of the boundary so he wouldn’t stop the clock. Smart, very valuable player for the Niners’ offense.
Defensive Players of the Week
John Abraham, outside linebacker, Arizona. Moved past Lawrence Taylor into ninth place on the all-time sack list with a three-sack, one-safety day in the Cards’ rout of the Rams. Abraham looks like he could easily give the Cards another productive season as a second rush alternative to Calais Campbell in 2014, and I hear he wants to play another one.
Junior Gallette, outside linebacker, and Cameron Jordan, defensive end, New Orleans. Saints score twice in a hurry in the first half to take a 14-6 lead. Panthers’ ball, and they’ve got to do something with it. Third-and-8. Loud. Big play for Cam Newton. So here comes Jordan, speeding around the right tackle and running right into Newton for a crushing 10-yard sack. A few Drew Brees snaps later, the Saints are up 21-6, it’s halftime, and this one’s over. Jordan had nine sacks in his first two seasons as a pro. He’s got 11.5 now, with three important games left … As for Gallette, he added three sacks against a line that had previously allowed just 2.6 sacks a game. Sunday night, the Saints got Newton five times, all of them by the pass rush crew that gives defensive coordinator Rob Ryan freedom to rush from lots of different lanes.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Matt Prater, kicker, Denver. It’s stunning, honestly, that the record for the longest field goal in history has stood for 43 years (Tom Dempsey, New Orleans, Nov. 8, 1970), and been tied three times but never bested. Prater finally got his shot, his first time ever trying a 64-yarder at any level of football, and drilled it at the end of the first half in what turned out to be a Denver rout Sunday.
Jeremy Ross, kick-returner, Detroit. An amazing day in the snow at Lincoln Financial Field. Ross returned a punt for a 58-yard touchdown and a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, looking like he was the only man who didn’t think the field was slippery. He’s the first Lion to return a kick and punt for touchdowns in the same game since Eddie Payton (brother of Walter) did it in 1977.
Coach of the Week
Dave Taub, special teams coach, Kansas City. A special teams coach couldn’t have a better day. Dexter McCluster returned seven punts for 177 yards—including a 74-yard touchdown—and Quinton Demps returned two kicks for 123 yards, including a 95-yard touchdown. Taub was a great kicking-game coach in Chicago, and he’s turning out to be one of Andy Reid’s best hires in Kansas City.
Goats of the Week
Dominic Raiola, center, and Matthew Stafford, quarterback, Detroit. Imagine being a Detroit fan, and seeing the Lions’ carelessness with the football ruin this team week after week. Okay, blame the weather for many of the seven fumbles by the Lions (five credited to Stafford), but down eight and trying to mount a drive to tie midway through the fourth quarter, there’s absolutely no reason for the center and quarterback to mess up a shotgun snap and blow the last chance at an important win. Stafford wasn’t looking, Raiola snapped it back, it bounced around, and the Eagles recovered and got an insurance touchdown. Ridiculous.
Rob Chudzinski, head coach, Cleveland. This is for leaving his team with no timeouts remaining in a very winnable game at Foxboro. The Browns stupidly burned two timeouts in the third quarter, then called the last one with 35 seconds left and the clock stopped after pass interference put the ball at the Cleveland 1 for New England. So when Cleveland, down 27-26 with a 2nd-and-10 at its 47 and 14 seconds left, completed a pass to Jordan Cameron for 13 yards, Jason Campbell could have used that timeout with eight or nine seconds left. Since he didn’t have one left, he was forced to spike the ball with two seconds left to stop the clock. Billy Cundiff’s 58-yard attempt was just short. Had Campbell been able to complete one more boundary pass, the field goal could have come from a manageable 48 or 50 yards. You just don’t burn timeouts like that.