Oh, it was cold last night? The Super Bowl’s outside, in northern New Jersey, in eight weeks. It’s going to be cold then. Maybe not Siberian cold, but cold.
You had injuries to deal with last night? You think you’re not going to get more hurt by the first weekend of January?
You had some good receivers to deal with last night, the great Brandon Marshall and the star-in-the-making Alshon Jeffery? You won’t face better, but you do have a couple of hot ones, DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper, to cover in Week 17.
If you’re still in the race by then, Dallas.
This Cowboys team smells an awful lot like the past two editions. Which is to say, 8-8. Imagine the grave disappointment of a third straight .500 season for the Cowboys. That’s what Dallas (7-6) looked like last night in the 45-28 wipeout at Chicago, in a game played in negative temperatures, courtesy the wind off Lake Michigan.
If you’re a Dallas fan, you’d like some small piece of good news after that egg-laying last night at Soldier Field. I don’t blame you. I can offer you one ray of brightness: the schedule in the last three weeks of the season for the Cowboys and NFC East-leading Eagles, one game up on Dallas in first place with three to play. Here it is:
at Minnesota (3-9-1)
vs. Chicago (7-6)
at Dallas (7-6)
vs. Green Bay (6-6-1)
at Washington (3-10)
vs. Philadelphia (8-5)
The schedule edge goes to Dallas. The Cowboys have two at home and the Eagles two on the road. The finale is Eagles-Cowboys in Texas. But the schedule’s hardly a killer for the Eagles. Dallas will be rooting hard for Matt Flynn to play for the Packers this weekend at Dallas—because that means Aaron Rodgers won’t be in there, still nursing a broken collarbone.
But it might not mean much if the Eagles, on a four-game winning streak, don’t fall back to earth a bit. As Cowboys fans saw last night (unless they threw something at the TV, rendering it black), the team broke a two-game streak of competent defense with a frightening performance. The first eight Chicago possessions: touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal. The depleted defensive front got gashed by Matt Forte. A backup quarterback (but for how long?), Josh McCown, completed 75 percent of his throws for four touchdowns and no picks. Interceptions. Don’t remind the Cowboys. They dropped three.
In short, Dallas is in big trouble. The only way the Cowboys will get out of it is with Matt Flynn playing this first week, continued chaos in Washington the second week … and Nick Foles succumbing to playoff pressure in the third. But the way that defense is playing, the only way the Cowboys make the playoffs is by winning shootouts. That’s never a recipe for success.
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Like he never left
In late July, Super Bowl champion quarterback Joe Flacco’s favorite target, tight end Dennis Pitta, suffered a hip dislocation and fracture. It was assumed he’d be out for the year, and though the Ravens kept him on the IR-designated-to-return list, it was more hope than logic. But last week, after a second week of practicing full speed without pain in his surgically repaired right hip, Pitta was deemed ready to play … just 19 weeks after lying in a heap on the Ravens’ practice field at the start of the team’s training camp.
Pitta’s not a big talker—that’s probably why he fits well with the reserved Flacco—and since he was not volunteering anything as his return drew near, it was Flacco who drew him out.
“What’s it feel like to be back?’’ Flacco said to him in the home locker room in Baltimore Sunday morning, as the Ravens dressed before their game with Minnesota.
“Like normal,’’ Pitta said. “Like I’ve been playing all year.”
That’s how he looked once he got on the field. Playing without restriction and looking very much like the intermediate and deep threat who had endeared Flacco to him, Pitta played 36 snaps, was targeted 11 times, caught six passes for 48 yards and scored on a one-yard TD catch in the final minutes that gave Baltimore one of its three leads in the last three minutes.
Afterward, the most important thing was nothing hurt—at least according to Pitta. “I felt like I came back from the dead,’’ he said, chuckling, over the phone from Baltimore. “I was a little mad early, because I had a drop early in the game. But the best thing was all through the game, in those slippery conditions, I never felt it once. That’s the best news. After a while, I just never thought about it anymore.”
He laid out to catch one pass parallel to the ground across the middle from Flacco, and his touchdown catch was a classic tight end move—using his body to box out and eliminate the defender, before the ball settled in Pitta’s gut.
The Ravens might have the toughest slate of any marginal playoff contender in the last three weeks—at Detroit, New England, and at Cincinnati to close—and, at 7-6, they probably have to go at least 2-1 in those three to have a good chance to play in the postseason. But with the return of Flacco’s favorite target, no AFC contender got the kind of adrenalin shot the Super Bowl champs got over the weekend. I look at the Ravens this way, as their D starts to play better and they show some sparks running it: Don’t let them in the tournament. They’ll knock off somebody.
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