The Game Plan (cont.)
Chris Johnson, running back, Tennessee.
Let's see: Which stat is more important? That Johnson, the NFL rushing leader, had a forgettable nine-carry, 34-yard game -- his worst of the season -- against the Colts in their first meeting this year? Or that he's rushed for 228, 135, 132, 151 and 154 yards in the past five weeks? The heat will be on Johnson to keep the clock moving and keep the possessions long for the Titans. It's not a prescription for automatic victory to keep the ball out of Peyton Manning's hands Sunday (just ask the Dolphins about limiting Manning's touches and how much it matters), but there's no question it'll help -- especially if Johnson is able to turn those possessions into three or seven points consistently. Tennessee needs a 150-yard, two-touchdown day from Johnson to win this game.
Ten Things I'll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The MVP race might be the best ever. I've been an MVP voter for 15 years or so; I can't recall my first year, though I do recall getting a funny look from Deanna Favre when I voted for Carnell Lake in 1997, meaning Brett and Barry Sanders tied for the award that year. And I don't recall a year this challenging. Favre might be having the best year of his life at 40, and he may not win it. Drew Brees is having the best year of his life, and he just got finished strafing the Patriots, and he might not win it. Peyton Manning could throw for the most yards of his life, while breaking in two new receivers and compensating for a bad running game, and he might not win it. And Philip Rivers and Chris Johnson and ... well, lots of interesting angles in the MVP race. Glad I don't have to decide till a month from today.
2. How 'bout them Titans? Five wins in a row, and now they invade the den of the almighty 11-0 Colts. When I asked the wide-eyed Kenny Britt about the challenge facing his team in Indianapolis the other day, he said: "I believe that's not a problem.'' Memo to Jim Caldwell: Before you go plastering that on the bulletin board or the grease board or whatever board you have for inflammatory quotes from opponents, understand that Britt was chuckling when he said it. But this game, which looked worse than Detroit-Cleveland a month ago, now is a fascinating matchup.
3. Whether the Cowboys really are frightened of the 12th month of the year. This is somewhere south of ridiculous: The last time the Cowboys had a winning record in December, Tony Romo was a sophomore at Burlington (Wis.) High. Records in the last 12 Decembers: 1-3, 2-2, 2-3, 2-3, 2-3, 2-2, 0-4, 2-3, 1-3, 2-3, 2-2, 0-3. The Giants haven't been very giant lately. Might be a good idea to turn the calendar page, Cowboys. Literally.
4. Chris Redman, season savior. Redman's 4-6 as a starting quarterback in a, shall we say, checkered NFL career as a backup in Baltimore and Atlanta. This is his first start in two years, and all that's in the balance is Atlanta's flagging playoff hopes.
5. The Redskins, with nothing to lose. Remember when the sad-sack Giants hosted the 13-0 Broncos 11 years ago, and Kent Graham played passably and the Broncos kept making one mistake after another, and the Giants eked one out. Not saying that'll happen here. But the Redskins have been justthisclose to winning in Dallas and Philly the last two weeks after beating Denver -- combined score of the last three Washington games: 'Skins 57, Foes 51 -- and those are three teams that might end up in the playoffs. In other words, it might be interesting at FedEx Sunday, if Rock Cartwright can rock the Saints.
6. Cameras on the sidelines, watching for woozy players. All TV directors should tell their camera people to have antennae up for the walking wounded on the sidelines. This is the first week of the new NFL regulations requiring anyone knocked into next week to not return to the game even if he feels fine later in the game. It's not quite the National Head Trauma League yet, but there's no doubt this could be a different era in the NFL, with more players taking the rest of Sunday off if they get dinged.
7. Favre. On Sunday night in Arizona, Favre will try to continue the kind of mistake-free season we never thought we'd see him have. He's trying to become the first player in history to have an 8-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. (In fact, Cold, Hard Football Facts had a good stat this week that there's never been a 7-to-1 TD-to-pick ratio in NFL history; the best is Tom Brady's 6.25-to-1 mark in 2007.) Favre's at 8-to-1 now (24-3). No way he can keep it up. Is there?
8. The battle for NFC homefield. Saints 11-0, Minnesota 10-1. Both could run the table. Imagine a 15-1 team on the road for a league title game. Never happened before. Imagine a 16-0 team only marginally favored in the league title game. What a season.
9. The battle for the AFC second seed. Cincy and San Diego should handle Detroit and Cleveland, respectively. That'd leave both teams 9-3. It sets up nicely for a winner-takes-second Dec. 19 showdown, Bengals at Chargers ... with one little asterisk. After that game, San Diego has a short week, then flies cross-country to Nashville for a Friday (Christmas night) game against a team that could be incredibly hot then. Which means the Chargers can't afford to slip on the Cleveland banana peel Sunday.
10. Ben and Hines. They've kissed and made up, I see. But I will be looking very closely Sunday, late afternoon, at the column in the official play-by-play boxscore that shows how many times Ward was targeted by his quarterback against Oakland. If Santonio Holmes and Mike Wallace or Heath Miller have more than Ward (unless Nnamdi Asomugha covers Ward every snap), my eyebrows will be raised.
NFL Truth & Rumors