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A key AFC South showdown Sunday in Houston has its roots in West Lafayette, Ind.
There, back in 1991, Purdue senior strong safety Rick Smith and freshman tight end Ryan Grigson -- now the general managers of the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts, respectively -- befriended each other, practiced against one another and began to build a bond that lasted beyond their college days.
During Grigson's sophomore year at Purdue, in a game against Minnesota, he absorbed a blow to his abdomen that brought on acute pancreatitis, which led to kidney failure and pneumonia. Doctors considered it a life-threatening injury that left Grigson in the hospital for five weeks, two of which were spent in intensive care.
Smith -- who had gone on to become a graduate assistant coach at Purdue -- would visit Grigson and deliver pep talks, trying to lift the spirits of a young college student who was beyond down. One day, Smith also gave Grigson the signed Bible that his mother once had given to him.
It was a gift to help Grigson endure and one that, through the years, Smith forgot. Grigson, though, never did.
As the two men worked their way up the ranks in the NFL, Grigson told Smith he had a gift that he wanted to give him at the scouting combine in Indianapolis in 2006. When the two men failed to connect there due to busy schedules, Grigson shipped a package to Smith that contained the Bible. Grigson was sending it back for Smith to give to his oldest son, Robert.
Smith and Grigson have been instrumental in building two of football's best teams. Smith has stockpiled enough talent to make the Texans a certified Super Bowl contender, while Grigson has put back together a franchise that had fallen into disrepair. Now, for the first time, they will square off as general managers the way they once did at practice at Purdue.
"I honestly don't know what it will be like, but I know this: Rick has assembled an extremely talented team," Grigson texted this week.
One of the greatest gifts Smith gave Grigson during his tough college times was the emotional support he needed. Grigson remembered how Smith handled it and learned from it.
"That experience actually helped me do my best to help Chuck [Pagano] get through his hospital stay during the season," Grigson said, referring to the Colts' head coach who has spent his season battling leukemia.
Smith helped teach Grigson, who helped teach Pagano, who helped teach many how to fight with courage and dignity as two old friends from West Lafayette, Ind., meet again.
1. Can Ryan respond? Moments after Carolina crushed Atlanta 30-20 last Sunday, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn got right in the face of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and taunted him.
Hardy and Munnerlyn told Ryan to get off their home field, though in much more profane language. They verbally bullied Ryan right in front of other players and coaches, as if the Panthers' beatdown of the Falcons wasn't humiliating enough.
|Twenty of Matt Ryan's 24 touchdowns this season came in the Falcons' first nine games.|
Now it's time for Ryan to fight back. On Showdown Sunday, when the NFL gives us Packers-Bears, Colts-Texans, Cowboys-Steelers, Broncos-Ravens and Giants-Falcons, no player is under more scrutiny and pressure than Ryan.
Over the past four games, Ryan has thrown seven interceptions -- as many as he threw in the Falcons' first nine games this season. Over the past four games, Ryan has thrown only four touchdowns, not the pace that placed him right smack in the middle of the NFL's Most Valuable Player discussion during the first half of the season, when he threw 20 touchdowns during Atlanta's first nine games.
Ryan is so close to helping the Falcons clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs yet so far from having his team viewed as a real heavyweight and threat. Even NBC commentator Rodney Harrison said Sunday night that no one in the league fears the Falcons. Instead, other teams try to instill the fear, as Hardy and Munnerlyn did.
Once the postseason begins, the biggest challenge will belong to Falcons head coach Mike Smith, who will have to convince his team and the public why this postseason will be different than the previous three one-and-dones for Atlanta. But the biggest challenge Sunday belongs to Ryan, who must slay the team that toppled Atlanta last postseason and steamrolled Drew Brees and the Saints last Sunday.
Ryan has been struggling. His team's 28th-ranked rushing offense hasn't helped. Key injuries to safety William Moore and cornerback Brent Grimes haven't helped. And the Falcons also have developed a real and unwelcome habit of playing to the level of their competition. But Ryan and the Falcons haven't helped themselves, either.
Now is the time to do it, on Showdown Sunday, against the defending world champions, at a time when Ryan is being pushed around. At some point, the more-fiery-than-people-realize Ryan has to push back.
2. Race for the bottom: With all the talk of playoff tiebreakers and clinchers, it's easy to overlook maybe the most significant race left this season.
It's the (un)amazing race, the battle for the No. 1 overall pick.
If the season ended today, Kansas City would own the No. 1 selection and Jacksonville would pick No. 2. And of course, almost as if it is par for the course, even when one of those teams wins, it loses.
There is no Andrew Luck, no Robert Griffin III, no sure thing at the top of the draft who can remake the roster and mood in Kansas City or Jacksonville. As good as Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, Alabama guard Chance Warmack and Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore are, none is creating the type of buzz that any of this year's sterling rookie quarterbacks did.
As one NFL executive said last week, this will be a bottom-heavy draft in which teams might be able to help themselves as much with the No. 12 pick as easily as with the No. 2 pick. But someone still has to win No. 1.
Kansas City plays at Oakland, hosts the Colts, then finishes at Denver in a game the Broncos might not be playing for anything. Jacksonville closes out its schedule at Miami, at home against the Patriots, and at Tennessee. Jacksonville might hold a slight scheduling advantage down the stretch, but this race is too close to call.
Oh, the excitement. Oh, the drama. One team soon will clinch No. 1 in a season in which there is no clear-cut No. 1 pick.
3. A perfect player: No team will go unbeaten this season, but one player is trying to pull off his own 1972 Dolphins-like feat.
Broncos return man Trindon Holliday is -- impressively, amazingly -- 13-0 this season. Holliday won his first five games of the season with the Texans before they waived him. The Broncos claimed him, and they have won eight straight since then.
As good as Adrian Peterson has been, as impressive as Luck has been, as dominant as Aldon Smith has been, nobody is as hot as Holliday. He has gone 13 straight weeks without a loss.
And how about this: Last season, Holliday was on the Texans roster for only one game, and of course Houston won. So in his two seasons in the NFL, Holliday has never lost a game.
Denver's final three games are at Baltimore, then at home against Cleveland and Kansas City. Holliday is three games from one of the more unlikely perfect seasons the league has seen.
Former Dolphins running back Mercury Morris doesn't have to worry about any unbeaten team moving into his neighborhood this season, but he might want to keep open an extra room for Holliday to rent.
4. Ponder's problems: Minnesota has running back Adrian Peterson, wide receiver Percy Harvin and quarterback questions. There's no other way around it: The Vikings are equally disappointed and stumped at the lack of development with former first-round pick Christian Ponder. They also are at a loss over what to do about it.
Ponder barely has been good enough for the Vikings to avoid turning to backup quarterback Joe Webb, but not good enough that Minnesota should not be mulling its offseason quarterback options.
In the past seven games, Ponder has thrown for 962 yards while Peterson has rushed for 1,101. It might be one of the most damning and impressive statistics of the season. Opponents know Minnesota will run, and cannot throw, and they still are struggling to stop Peterson.
Peterson has carried the Vikings into the playoff race, while Ponder has prevented them from moving ahead in it -- more evidence as to why Minnesota's running back deserves major MVP consideration.
If Ponder does not get benched first, which is no sure thing, he will have three more games -- at St. Louis, at Houston and at home against Green Bay -- to answer the questions he has raised. He has to try to get the Vikings to the playoffs while saving his job and proving he is worthy of it next season.
|If Colin Kaepernick can't get Jim Harbaugh's 49ers at least to the NFC Championship Game, they'll fall short of last year's playoff run.|
5. Niners on the spot: Inadvertently, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has put quarterback Colin Kaepernick and himself in a tough position.
Unless the 49ers make it to or past the NFC Championship Game, San Francisco will not have gone as far this season with Kaepernick as it did last season with Alex Smith. The standard is high, the measuring stick long, and Harbaugh has assumed all the risk.
But for now, Kaepernick and the 49ers have a more immediate challenge than worrying about the postseason. San Francisco's next two games are in New England and Seattle, about as tough a road doubleheader as any team can have.
The two games will define whether San Francisco holds its one-game lead in the NFC West. The pressure's on for San Francisco to win out because Seattle finishes its season in Canada against the Bills, then at home with back-to-back games against the 49ers and Rams.
6. What if ...: Cleveland hosts Washington on Sunday, and it's hard not to think of the game plans each franchise has scripted.
After Cleveland traded its sixth overall pick in 2011 to Atlanta for two first-round picks, one second-round pick and two fourth-round picks, no team had more ammunition to pull off a blockbuster trade for either Luck or Griffin than the Browns.
They even attempted to get a deal done. Cleveland bid on the Rams' second overall pick, offering three No. 1 picks, only to be outbid by Washington's three No. 1 picks and a second-round pick.
But ask yourself this: Would the Browns be better off as a franchise had they traded the necessary picks for Griffin or used the picks they acquired for Atlanta's right to draft Julio Jones in a different way?
Cleveland turned Atlanta's 2012 first-round pick into quarterback Brandon Weeden and used the Falcons' extra fourth-round pick as part of the package to trade up for Jones' former Alabama teammate, running back Trent Richardson, who has been superb.
But Griffin would have lifted the spirits and outlook of the entire franchise. If new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam were to answer honestly before Cleveland and Washington played Sunday, he would say his franchise would be better off with RG III.
|Ball security has been a weak spot for Andrew Luck during his stellar rookie season.|
7. Luck's weak spot: As good as Luck has been this season, he still is a rookie quarterback. Nowhere is this more evident than his occasional carelessness with the football.
For all his deserved plaudits, Luck leads the NFL with 23 turnovers this season, including 17 in six road games. Once again, Luck will be on the road Sunday, against an angry Texans team that was embarrassed Monday night in New England.
Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will try to force Luck into another multi-interception game, like the ones he had against veteran defensive playcallers such as Bears head coach Lovie Smith, Jets head coach Rex Ryan, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, and Lions head coach Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham.
If there's any consolation for Indianapolis, it's this: The Colts should feel fortunate that Luck has had 13 games to face NFL defenses before going up against a Phillips-led defense that he will face twice in the next three weeks. He will be that much better prepared for a defense that has fared well against everyone but Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.
8. Cowboys need Dez: Over the past couple months, there are few players in the league who have been more important to their team than wide receiver Dez Bryant has been to Dallas, which is why his fractured left index finger is so significant.
Since Week 10, Bryant has seven touchdown catches -- two more than any other NFL player. Each of Bryant's nine touchdown receptions this season have come in the second half of games -- three more than any other player in the second half.
Dallas needs Bryant on Sunday against Pittsburgh more than ever. Its playoff spot could be riding on his availability.
9. Flimsy house of Cards: On Sept. 30, Arizona improved its record to 4-0, a start that included wins over the Seahawks and Patriots. Seems like a long time ago.
Since then, the Cardinals have not won a game. They have lost nine straight.
The Cardinals have been one of the surprise teams of the season's first month and one of the surprise teams of the past few months.
They also are the ultimate example of a schedule being not about whom a team plays, but when it plays them. Early on, nobody could beat Arizona. Now, everyone does.
10. Seahawks' secret weapon: Seattle's MVP could be Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman or Marshawn Lynch, but its most valuable coach might be assistant head coach Tom Cable. Ask any Seattle player, and he will speak of how important Cable has been.
He has helped give Seattle its physical mindset. Lynch even waited for reassurance that Cable would be back for 2012 before he agreed to re-sign.
Cable went 8-8 in 2010 as Oakland's head coach under Al Davis -- that Raiders team even swept its AFC West games. Many around the league expect Cable to be a head coach again.
He's from Washington, and Pete Carroll is the league's second-oldest head coach, even if he doesn't always act like it. Whenever Carroll decides he's done, Cable could be his successor -- if another team doesn't hire him first.
• Game of the week: 49ers at Patriots -- Few would be surprised if these two teams met again in February in New Orleans.
• Player of the week: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco -- After back-to-back losses, Flacco is set to shine with new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell against Peyton Manning.
• Upset of the week: Chicago over Green Bay -- The Bears are banged up, but their season is on the line.