Player You Need to Watch This Weekend
Julius Peppers, defensive end, Chicago (number 90). So Aaron Rodgers is coming back Sunday, in the NFC North championship game at Soldier Field. And just who is going to be there to stop him from putting up 30 points or so, even as rusty as he certainly will be? That is the question the Bears better be ready to answer. Get this: According to Pro Football Focus, the Bears’ top five outside rushers (in terms of number of snaps played) have combined for 41 sacks and quarterback hits in 2,710 combined defensive snaps. Meanwhile, St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn has 38 sacks and hits in 798 defensive plays. So the Bears, in three-and-a-half times the snaps of Quinn, has essentially the same amount of disruption to the quarterback as the lone Ram. That’s depressing for Bears fans—and we’ll let Peppers represent the five-man group of defensive ends and outside ‘backers.
Sound Bite of the Week
“We’re down to our fifth running back, our third tight end. So yes, I’m worried about it.”
—Interim Houston coach Wade Phillips on Thursday, asked if he was worried about the depth on his roster entering the final game of the season Sunday at Tennessee. Someone named Jonathan Grimes will start at running back for the Texans. He is one of three former practice-squad running backs who will make up the depth chart at the position for Houston on Sunday.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. Aaron Rodgers returneth. Will he see ghosts? Hear footsteps? Be over-protective of his left collarbone? I doubt it—all of it. But the Bears’ best shot in the NFC North title game Sunday at Soldier Field will be to rattle Rodgers around early. Which leads me to …
2. Mel Tucker’s plan. You saw the ugly stats up above. Shea McClellin, Julius Peppers, James Anderson, Corey Wootton and Lance Briggs can’t get much pressure on the quarterback: combined, just 2.8 sacks plus quarterback hits per game between the five men. Tucker, the defensive coordinator, might have a future NFL head-coaching interview riding on what he can whip up to harass Rodgers.
3. The AFC’s sixth seed. I told you the other day how five teams could tie at 8-8 for the sixth seed—Pittsburgh, San Diego, Baltimore, the Jets and Miami. Wouldn’t that be fun? Not for anyone but the Steelers, who would complete the incredible comeback from 2-6 to the playoffs in those circumstances.
4. The NFC South title. If Carolina wins at pesky Atlanta, the Panthers win the division and finish the season 11-1 in their last 12. And the Saints would have to win four games away from Dome Sweet Dome to win the second Super Bowl of the Payton Era.
5. Elite 18. Eighteen teams enter Sunday mathematically alive for the playoffs. That’s a lot.
6. The most offensive season ever. And I mean that in a good way. The 1948 season saw the highest average scoring in a season to this point: 46.48 points per game. This year, teams are scoring 0.7 points more—47.18 per game, combined, on average.
7. The Record Book Eraser. Peyton Manning has thrown for more than 266 yards in a game 14 out of 15 times this season. If he does it Sunday at Oakland, he’ll break Drew Brees’ record for passing yards in a season. Here’s some nice symmetry: If he throws four touchdown passes and throws for 344 yards Sunday, he’ll finish the season with 55 touchdowns and 5,555 yards.
8. Tony Gonzalez: The end. Imagine playing 17 years, getting beat up by linebackers and safeties when he doesn’t see the punishment coming half the time, playing until you’re 37, and knowing you could come back next year at 38 and catch 80 or 90 balls. Gonzalez the athlete and ballplayer is tremendous. Gonzalez the physical freak and workout wonder might be even better.
9. London Fletcher: The end. He might have eclipsed Sam Mills as the best small linebacker of the past quarter-century. He plays his 246th and final game Sunday at the Giants, leaving the game as one of the best leaders and most consistent play-makers of this century. Fletcher played four season for St. Louis, five for Buffalo and seven for Washington. This week’s sign of the silliness of Pro Bowl voting: Fletcher didn’t make one until he was 34. A shame.
10. Rex’s final audition. Jets at Miami Sunday. If Ryan gets this team to 8-8, he shouldn’t accept a contract extension. President Obama should hire him to run Healthcare.gov. The country needs a miracle worker.