Clutch quarterbacks a must
Fourth-quarter rallies commonplace; pressure's on Giants and Bears
Inside the Huddle
Week 11 featured four games in which teams overcame deficits of at least 11 points, including three in which 13-point leads were vanquished.
The crazy finishes only stressed the necessity of having a quarterback who can win in the fourth quarter. Of the 160 games played this season, 30 percent have been won by quarterbacks in the fourth quarter. It's fitting, because 85 games have been decided by eight points or fewer, second most at this stage of the season all time.
Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford and Michael Vick each have three fourth-quarter comebacks. Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Tony Romo, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford, Matt Hasselbeck and Kevin Kolb each have two.
Don't expect the theme to recede over the final six weeks of the regular season. Gaps might exist between contenders and pretenders, but games are so close that teams are often one play away from either disaster or success.
Take no lead for granted.
Here are the trends for NFL Week 12:
1. Battle of recent SB champs: Last season, the Green Bay Packers appeared to be building a dynasty. They came off their Super Bowl win with a 15-1 regular season, only to lose in the divisional round to the New York Giants. All of a sudden, the Packers went from No. 1 seed to No. 1 postseason disappointment.
As the Packers are finding out this season, getting back to the top isn't easy. Injuries have dogged them all season, but coach Mike McCarthy has kept the team working hard and has it at 7-3, tied for the NFC North lead. They face a Giants team that is 6-4 and struggling. Defensive end Justin Tuck suggested that maybe Giants players have been a little too confident. Their two-game losing streak should humble them. Quarterback Eli Manning has struggled getting completions downfield. The running game has been missing. Defense has been spotty.
But it will be easy for the Packers to focus on the meaning of a Giants game. The Giants' two recent Super Bowl runs came at the expense of the Packers. The Giants won the 2007 NFC title game at Lambeau Field and last year's playoff game there. Now, the Packers travel to the Giants with plenty on the line.
2. Figuring out the Bears: During their 7-1 start, Chicago Bears fans were thinking Super Bowl. Lovie Smith's Cover 2 was stifling. Seven interceptions were returned for scores in those games, and the offense -- though not spectacular -- was doing enough to win. But how much of that was an easy schedule? Over the past two weeks, the Bears lost a close one at home to the Houston Texans and were overpowered 32-7 Monday night by the San Francisco 49ers. Have the Bears lost their roar?
They expect to get QB Jay Cutler back from a concussion for Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings. It's a must win. The problems along the Bears' offensive line are only getting worse. Starting Sunday, there are no excuses. If they lose to the Vikings in Soldier Field, they will look like paper Bears.
The Vikings are 6-4 and have four games in their final six against Chicago and Green Bay, so they will find out if their playoff bid is for real.
3. Carson Palmer's return: Face it, the Bengals fleeced the Oakland Raiders last season. Desperate to find a replacement for injured QB Jason Campbell, the Raiders lured Palmer out of retirement and traded a first- and second-round pick to get him. He has gone 7-12 as Oakland's starter, and the Raiders (3-7) look like a franchise in need of retirement. Their defense is porous. The running backs are in the infirmary. Palmer is the most generous quarterback in the sport, throwing touchdown passes to both Raiders receivers and opponents.
But this game is more about Andy Dalton. Dalton stunned the world last year by taking the Bengals to the playoffs as a rookie. But the lack of a No. 2 receiver, an inconsistent running game and shaky blocking in the middle of the offensive line have Dalton feeling less comfortable in the pocket. Wins over the Giants and Kansas City Chiefs have the Bengals back in the AFC wild-card race. Bengals fans would love stepping over Palmer to advance their team's cause.
4. Boon to the Browns? The cities of Cleveland and Pittsburgh have been rivals for decades. Their pro football teams haven't been true rivals for a long time. The Steelers have won 16 of their past 17 games against the Browns. Mike Tomlin's already 9-1 against Cleveland. The Browns have gone through more head coaches during Tomlin's tenure than the Browns have victories over the Steelers. But the Steelers' battered situation gives Cleveland hope.
Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich are out, so the Steelers are down to Charlie Batch and Brian Hoyer at quarterback. If they get another injury, the Steelers might have to summon Terry Hanratty for help or wave the Terrible Towel to surrender.
As they showed against the Ravens last week, the Steelers may struggle to score points. The Browns have gotten younger on offense and are averaging 18.9 points a game, almost a touchdown more than last year. The Steelers, who started 6-3 with Big Ben, could head into a month-long tailspin if they lose this game.
5. Benefitting from Steelers' troubles: The potential fall of the Steelers could give life to some of the AFC's playoff zombies. The Chargers, Dolphins, Bills and Titans should have no right thinking playoffs with 4-6 records, but Roethlisberger's injury turned the walking dead into potential survivors.
The most interesting game of the four teams is the Bills' visit to Indianapolis. At 6-4, the Colts have been a surprise team thanks to rookie QB Andrew Luck. They have potential road loses coming up against Detroit and Houston, but if they take advantage of winnable home games against the Bills and Tennesse and a road trip to Kansas City, the Colts could get a wild card.
The Chargers have lost five of six and Philip Rivers has lost his way at quarterback, forcing horrible interceptions. They host the Baltimore Ravens. The Titans have been up and down, but owner Bud Adams has everyone on alert as the team travels to Jacksonville. The Dolphins have a tough assignment going against the 6-4 Seahawks.
6. Five days to re-establish credibility: At 9-1, the Atlanta Falcons don't have to apologize to anyone. Matt Ryan was my first-half MVP, and new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has brought needed creativity to a defense that drowned in Cover 2 problems last year. With a three-game lead, the Falcons aren't going to blow the NFC South, but the next five days could show if they are a legitimate Super Bowl team.
The Falcons visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday and come back next Thursday to host the Saints. Everyone knows the Falcons have had breaks in the schedule. They've gone 9-1 against teams with a .380 combined winning percentage. But the Falcons have looked vulnerable lately.
Ryan beat the Cardinals in Week 11 even though he threw five interceptions. The Falcons' defense has been pushed around. With no playoff wins in the Ryan era, establishing credibility is important with the fans and in the locker rom. They cut DE Ray Edwards for insubordination. Is the team falling apart or can it put things back together? It's an important five days.
7. Rookie QB showcase: The Ryan Tannehill-Russell Wilson battle in Miami has a lot on the line. Wilson has been a third-round surprise. At 5-foot-10, he has stood tall (he's completing 62 percent of his passes) and has the Seahawks in position for a wild card.
Tannehill surprised defenses for a few weeks with his mastery of the no-huddle, but the Dolphins look like an offense in need of both a huddle and a hug. Defenses have figured out the Dolphins lack speed and talent at receiver. For a few weeks, Tannehill kept defenses guessing. But in the past two weeks, he has been intercepted five times, and he hasn't completed 60 percent of his passes in any of his past four games. What makes this game scary is that he's going against one of the best secondaries in football.
The Seahawks need the win to stay ahead of Tampa Bay and Minnesota in the NFC wild-card race.
8. Bounty revenge game: Around the country, the New Orleans Saints have become a team that has drawn sympathy. The endless appeals by four current and former Saints players fighting their bounty suspensions have some NFL fans thinking the Saints got the shaft. After a poor start, the Saints have salvaged pride by getting back to even, at 5-5, despite not having Sean Payton as head coach and losing interim coach Joe Vitt for six games.
That sympathy doesn't carry to San Francisco, though. "Let's go to the audio tapes," 49ers players and coaches are thinking. Whether Paul Tagliabue, a three-judge panel or public sentiment finds the Saints guilty or innocent, every 49ers player heard the tapes of former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams calling for his players to go for Frank Gore's head and Michael Crabtree's knee. The 49ers have been waiting for this game to settle the score.
For the Saints, this game is for survival. They know they have no margin of error and the next loss could end any hopes of the playoffs. Reporters in the Bay Area have been busy since Monday night sorting out whether Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick should be the 49ers' quarterback, but talk of the bounty scandal will dominate this game.
9. Looking for answers at QB: In every NFL city, the backup quarterback is often the most popular player. The biggest excitement is in Jacksonville. Blaine Gabbert has failed to impress for more than a year as a starter and was placed on injured reserve Wednesday. The Chad Henne era has begun. Henne played well in a shootout with Matt Schaub in Houston last week. The Jaguars lost, but Henne won the chance to start Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.
Everyone knows Jags GM Gene Smith is in trouble, but a good finish by Henne could save jobs. In Kansas City and Arizona, it's hard to figure out what is going on at quarterback. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt benched John Skelton in Week 11 despite a 13-0 lead over Atlanta, but Ryan Lindley came in and made enough mistakes to lose the game. The Cardinals host the St. Louis Rams as they try to end a six-game losing streak.
The Chiefs are going back to Brady Quinn over Matt Cassel, but does it really matter? Both quarterbacks have been brutal, and Chiefs fans want changes at coach and GM. The Chiefs host the Broncos and Peyton Manning.
10. Monday night mourning: During the spring, when networks put their NFL schedules together, a Carolina-Philadelphia game looked enticing. Cam Newton was a beast during his rookie season, throwing for more than 4,000 yards and pulling out four wins in the second half of the season. The Eagles were the Eagles, a dream team trying to rebound from their nightmarish 2011 season.
What no one figured is that 12 weeks into the season, this game would determine the worst team in the NFC. It's pretty clear Eagles coach Andy Reid lost this team and the locker room during or before the Week 7 bye. The Eagles have been flat and almost non-competitive. The Panthers have been a tease. Six of their eight losses have been by six points or fewer. It's a matchup of a franchise that has forgotten how to win games against a Panthers team that hasn't figured out how to win games.
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