Friday, November 13, 2009
10 Spot: Comfortable confines in NFC
By Adam Schefter
Put away the earmuffs.
Pack up the heavy coats.
Toss out the winter gloves.
If the football season ended today, the NFC playoffs would be played entirely in temperature-controlled environments.
For the first time.
Dallas and Arizona would play host to wild-card games in their retractable-roof stadiums, New Orleans and Minnesota would host divisional playoff games in their domes, and weather would be as much of a factor this postseason as the Cleveland Browns or Oakland Raiders.
This season and the seeds still could change, but not much. At the very least, it looks as if the NFC Championship Game and NFC divisional playoff games will be played indoors, and it's quite possible the NFC wild-card round will be, too. Teams that run the ball well will not have an added advantage in adverse weather conditions, and teams that pass the ball will not have worry about any disadvantage from adverse weather conditions.
Because now, even the most challenged weatherman could come up with this postseason forecast: NFC playoff games will be played in 68 degrees, with 1 mph winds and no chance of snow or rain.
This season, any Ice Bowl will be a De-Ice Bowl.
But that's for then. For now, this week's 10 Spot:
Sometimes writers hit it so dead-on, it's worth sharing. Such was the case Tuesday, when Boston Herald columnist Gerry Callahan typed these words about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning: "They are the Magic and Larry of their generation, and the game is theirs. They will slug it out for another six or seven seasons and then will walk away from the NFL, the top two quarterbacks ever to play. All they are doing now is haggling over the order in which they will finish. Is there any doubt? They both meet all the criteria we use when ranking the all-time greats: the stats, the rings, the ratings, the awards. There will be some old-timers who will wax nostalgic about the exploits of Sammy Baugh or Otto Graham, Joe Montana or John Elway, but in the end, they will know -- we all will know -- that these are the two best. The best passers. Best leaders. Best thinkers. Best competitors. Best winners." For the rest of column, click this link.
We interrupt the attention being hoisted upon Brady and Manning to shift the spotlight, if but for a few moments. Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker has become one of the least-heralded superstars in the league. Two seasons ago, Welker set the Patriots' season record with 112 catches. Last season, Welker reeled in 111 more passes. And this season, despite missing two games with a knee injury, Welker already has 55 catches and is on pace for 110. Had Welker been healthy all season, it's not inconceivable to think he might have been able to challenge Marvin Harrison's season catch record of 143.
Many people around New England consider the 2007 Randy Moss trade, in which New England acquired the mercurial wide receiver from Oakland for a fourth-round pick that turned out to be defensive back John Bowie, the most significant deal of that year. But in the very same offseason, the Dolphins traded Welker to the Patriots for second- and seventh-round picks that turned out to be Samson Satele and linebacker Abe Wright. The two trades stockpiled weapons the Colts need to slow down Sunday.
Indianapolis changed head coaches and defensive coordinators -- and nothing changed. Jim Caldwell replaced head coach Tony Dungy, Larry Coyer replaced defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, and Indianapolis looks as formidable as ever. Part of that is the familiarity that each man, Caldwell and Coyer, has with the other. Back when Caldwell was a four-year starter at defensive back at Iowa from 1973 to 1976, his defensive coordinator was none other than Coyer. So when Caldwell was picked to succeed Dungy, the first assistant he invited to join his staff was the one who groomed him as a coach and a man. Now the two men have joined forces again, this time with Coyer helping to shore up a defense that already is missing stalwarts Bob Sanders, Kelvin Hayden, Marlin Jackson and Tyjuan Hagler. Though not known for their defense, the Colts rank eighth in the league in total defense. Granted, No. 18 covers up many warts. But together, Caldwell and Coyer have conspired to cover up more.
Heading into the 2007 season, the Chiefs faced as big a non-quarterback issue as a team can have. Running back Larry Johnson, who had some off-field issues, wanted a lucrative contract extension. Defensive end Jared Allen, also with some off-field issues, wanted a lucrative contract extension. Kansas City could afford only one. It couldn't gamble on both. And so that August, Kansas City signed Johnson to a six-year, $45 million extension that included $19 million guaranteed. The following April, the Chiefs traded Allen to Minnesota for a first-round pick and two third-round picks. Commence head shakes.
As if that weren't bad enough, consider the players the Chiefs drafted with those picks. With the first-round pick, Kansas City selected offensive lineman Branden Albert. With the two third-round picks, Kansas City selected running back Jamaal Charles and safety DaJuan Morgan. And now we know why Scott Pioli was hired to run the Chiefs and why they are where they are today. It is worth rehashing one more time during the week in which the Chiefs cut Johnson and had to wonder why they ever rid themselves of Allen. This season alone, Allen has 10½ sacks; the Chiefs' entire team has 10.
|Wes Welker and Randy Moss both came to the Patriots in 2007. Both have been wildly successful.|
With the Vikings on their bye in Week 9, they were a part of a different major upset. There actually was no major news from Brett Favre. None. Shocking, almost. As his former franchise continued going up in flames in Tampa, Favre stayed out of the headlines for the first time since maybe April. But now the key question is what headlines are ahead. Different weeks have brought different admissions from Favre about different ailments. It should not be overlooked. One week Favre admits to nursing sore ribs, another to an unhealthy ankle, another to being on antibiotics for an unspecified sickness, and another to a sore groin that he told SI.com's Peter King nearly prevented him from playing in his return to Lambeau Field.
Now comes the season's second half and the physical challenges that await a 40-year-old quarterback. The first one Sunday against the Lions is not overly challenging; Detroit has allowed quarterbacks to compile a 107.3 quarterback rating this season. But now, the question isn't whether Favre still can play. It's whether he can last. It's a bit ironic that Favre is the toughest ironman in football history, a man whose consecutive game streak (299, including playoffs) is more impressive than Cal Ripken's, yet his durability continues to be questioned.
When the Cowboys are compelling, so is the NFC East. This season, the Cowboys are playing like they did in 2007, when they were 13-3 and won the NFC East title and home-field advantage in the NFC. They've already won at Philadelphia. They've already beaten Atlanta, giving them a tiebreaker in the event they're competing with the Falcons for a wild-card spot. And Dallas' next three games are at Green Bay, home versus Washington and home vs. Oakland on Thanksgiving Day. There's no reason Dallas shouldn't be 9-2 as it heads for its next real test -- December.
And that is where the potential problem comes in. Dallas hasn't had a winning record in December since 2001, the year the Cowboys finished 5-11. Over the past seven seasons, when they've blown the month and often their season, the Cowboys have gone 9-20 in December. In each of the past three seasons, the Cowboys have entered December leading the division -- and gone a combined 6-10. The month has been flat cold, in every way. But this is Dallas' down-the-line issue, especially with the way this team is playing. For now, the Cowboys will continue to try to make this a November to remember.
Were he coaching this season without any adversity, his accomplishments still would be impressive. On Oct. 8, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer lost his wife of 27 years, Vikki, who died of natural causes. Since then, Zimmer has coached as if he were on a mission. His Bengals players have been there for him and responded to him. During the first half of the past two games against Baltimore and Chicago, Cincinnati limited its opponents to a mere 185 yards. The Bengals' defense is fifth in the league in scoring defense, allowing 16.9 points per game.
Now comes the most significant test of the season -- at Pittsburgh. Should Cincinnati pull the upset, the Bengals will be -- and this is hard to imagine -- in control of the AFC North. A win Sunday would give the Bengals a season sweep against both the Ravens and Steelers. If the 6-2 Bengals win Sunday, they will be difficult to derail. And Zimmer's timing couldn't be any better. His contract is up after this season. With his work, he has positioned himself to be richly rewarded.
Titans quarterback Vince Young has put up numbers similar to those of the league's top quarterbacks -- 27-for-37 for 297 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Difference is, Young's numbers have come in two games, not one. Tennessee has limited Young's throws and relied on the team to win in other ways. Young has done nothing to hurt the Titans, and in fact has helped lead them to back-to-back wins over the Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers. Where Young has been most effective, however, is handing off the football. Since Young was inserted in the starting lineup two games ago, Titans running back Chris Johnson has turned into one of the game's top players, rushing 49 times for 363 yards and four touchdowns. With Johnson averaging 7.41 yards per carry the past two weeks, Tennessee has gotten back to what it did when it won -- and Young has revived his career.
With one of football's top young quarterbacks and a wide receiver who should be getting more attention than he does, San Diego is trying to wipe away a big Denver division lead just as it did last season. Last season, heading into December, Denver was 7-5 and San Diego was 4-8 -- and the Chargers still managed to win the division. This season, Denver opened 6-0 and San Diego was 2-3. Don't look now, but the Chargers are only one game behind the Broncos. With a game in Denver between the teams a week from Sunday, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is coming off what perhaps was the signature game of his six-year career, a come-from-behind victory over the New York Giants. Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson, whose contract is up after this season, is tied with Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Dallas' Miles Austin for the most touchdown catches of any wide receiver in the league. Having won its past three games, San Diego seems to be getting better as it prepares for Sunday's highly anticipated game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
After Tampa Bay invested a first-round pick in Josh Freeman, Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris said he and his rookie quarterback were married. And he's right. They will thrive together or they will sink together. But the early signs in Freeman's first NFL start against Green Bay were exceedingly positive. Freeman looked superb. He accomplished the un-rookie-like task of throwing three touchdown passes -- all from the shotgun. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Freeman compiled a 125.7 quarterback rating in the shotgun.
|All was quiet on the Brett Favre front last week. Don't expect the calm to last.|
The Schef's Specialties
Game of the week: New England at Indianapolis -- It's hard to get a more attractive matchup than Brett Favre's going back to Lambeau, but this is it.
Player of the week: Titans running back Chris Johnson -- With 959 rushing yards, Johnson is on pace to rush for almost 2,000; the Bills' defense he faces Sunday is allowing a league-worst 173.6 rushing yards per game.
Upset of the week: Redskins over Broncos -- Denver, coming off a physical Monday night loss, now travels back East to play a Redskins team that showed signs of life against the Falcons in Week 9.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.