Fourteen things you need to know on heels of Week 14 in the NFL
Bill Belichick has difficult situation developing with Randy Moss
The Dolphins and Jets return to the Fine 15; Cardinals move into the top five
Player awards for the week; MVP favorites; 10 things I think I think
NEW YORK -- Fourteen things you need to know on the heels of Week 14:
1. The 16-0 talk is radioactive. No one wants to touch it. It's almost like going undefeated, and talking about going undefeated, is going to turn your season to dust. Whatever happened to seeking excellence and wanting to be the best?
I'm not saying if I had a few injured guys or 34-year-old vets with bum knees I wouldn't rest them as much as I could. But I also think this: The Colts clinched homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with their 28-16 win over the Broncos Sunday, and they'll almost certainly begin the process of resting their veterans Thursday night at Jacksonville. So for some of them -- Peyton Manning, Jeff Saturday, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, to be sure -- there will be either 34 or 35 days between the last game they played in full until the first playoff game on either Jan. 16 or 17. I can see Mathis and Freeney not playing much, because they're both nicked. But I don't know how much it helps Peyton Manning to not play.
Now, former Colts coach Tony Dungy has told me it's good to practice first units versus first unit, which never happens at this point of the season normally. That's not the same to me, though, as when the real pass-rush is coming and real corners are covering. There will be plenty of time to debate (ad nauseum, I'm sure) that stuff. For now, let's examine the path that each undefeated team has to perfection (And congratulations to the Colts for two terrific achievements: setting the NFL mark for consecutive regular-season wins at 22, and for most wins in a decade at 114.):
Manning will play at least a series in all three games, to keep his starting streak alive; he's started every game of his professional career since being drafted in 1998.
Let's say the Colts play the starters one quarter Thursday. I say their streak ends then. If not then, either of the next two games could easily be losses. Nothing against Purdue rookie Curtis Painter, Manning's backup with Jim Sorgi on IR, but I can't see how a patchwork offensive line and a kid getting his first extended NFL playing time is going to make enough plays against a Rex Ryan now-you-see-it, now-you-don't defense to win.
"As a player,'' Indy tight end Dallas Clark told me, "I wouldn't want to make that call. If we play, fine. If we don't, we have to take the attitude that we'll get better by watching and studying.''
Get the books and video out, Dallas .
In New Orleans, Jonathan Vilma says his team's focus will be on winning a championship, not going 16-0, and however that could best be attempted is the way he thinks the players want to go. "It's tough,'' Vilma said. "Fans are confused. We're not trying to go for 16-0. We're trying to win a title.''
I think the Saints will win them all. They'll play their starters most, if not all, of the remaining games. They'll have two real tests -- against a Dallas team playing for its playoff life Saturday night in the Superdome, and at Carolina on Jan. 3. Never mind that John Fox might be coaching for his job. The Panthers are always a tough, grind-it-out test with the NFC's top-rated running game.
2. Bill Belichick has one of the biggest challenges of his coaching career on his hands, and how he handles it will go a long way in determining the 2009 fate of the Patriots. I detail Randy Moss' canine performance against Carolina Sunday in Goat of the Week, but suffice to say he's not playing hard and is totally useless in the lineup. So if you're Belichick, you know these things:
You have only one receiver, Wes Welker, who can get open against man coverage when Moss is a bum like this ... Your tight ends are useless as receivers ... Your screen game isn't effective because defenses know you have to use it so much that they're waiting for it constantly ... And Moss is a total head case.. So your options are to draw the hard line and bench him and play Sam Aiken opposite Welker and hope the career special-teamer strikes gold. Unlikely. Or you can baby Moss along, keep him as one of the captains, pretend he's just going through a tough stretch, and expend an incredible amount of energy making him feel like he's still your go-to guy. Clearly, Belichick's going to have to try the latter.
New England could lose at Buffalo, particularly if the Bills -- if Perry Fewell is smart -- double Welker on every snap underneath and over the top, and belt him around in the five-yard bump zone. I remember Bill Parcells preaching to the beat guys who covered the Giants (and I'm sure he beat his assistants over the heads with it in the '80s, including Belichick) that his job was to get the most out of each player, and that meant he wasn't going to treat everyone the same because everyone didn't react to coaching the same way. That's where Belichick is now with Moss.
3. You've got to like Tom Brady trying to put the pressure for the Patriots' performance down the stretch on his shoulders. "Put it on me,'' he said over the cell phone on his way home from Foxboro on Sunday evening. "That's where I want it -- on me.'' You asked for it, you got it. We talked for maybe 15 minutes, and I'd have thought he'd be exasperated by a few things -- Moss, how poorly they were playing across the board the last month, the fourth-down-conversion problems, the Adalius Thomas fiasco. But no. Brady was ridiculously optimistic. "It's like a heavyweight fight,'' he said. "A boxing match. We just gotta keep fighting. We're not the same team as we were last year or the year before, but I haven't lost faith in us at all. It's just that our margin of error is so small.'' Whereas in 2007, Brady had a couple of professional receivers, Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney, as his third and fourth wideouts after Moss and Welker, now he's got the green Aiken and Julian Edelman (who's been hurt consistently).
New England's 8-5, a game ahead of the Jets and Dolphins, with the Bills, Jags and Texans on the schedule to finish up. Not too hard, not too easy for the old Patriots, but for these Patriots, where everything comes hard? "We're 7-0 at home,'' Brady said. "We just put up 470 yards of offense against a good defense in Miami. We got the best coach in history. Shoot, once the playoffs start, if we're fortunate enough to make them, anything can happen. We were 18-0 and didn't win the Super Bowl. You never know. Don't lose faith in us.'' When I got off the phone with him, I thought: That's what he's going to say to his team this week.
4. Remember how I said last week no one's going to want to play the Chargers in January? Still true. But add one more team to that list: the Eagles. They've changed before our very eyes. Did you see on TV last night when Andy Reid got airborne -- OK, he did a little hop -- to body-bump DeSean Jackson after Jackson scored a touchdown? I'm going out on a limb here, but I believe right here, right now, is the best offensive variety Reid has had with the Eagles in his 11 years as coach. It beat the Giants 45-38 last night at the Meadowlands. Check out the game-clinching drive, with 13 minutes left, starting at the Eagles' nine-yard line:
The 12-play drive had six runs, six passes.
Donovan McNabb was six-for-six on the drive.
There were eight conventional huddles, four change-of-pace no-huddles.
Including the two-point-conversion pass, McNabb completed passes to six receivers in this one drive.
Michael Vick was the quarterback for two of the plays. On one of them, Vick handed to LeSean McCoy, who pitched to McNabb, who scrambled and completed a short pass to tight end Brent Celek.
No T.O. No Westbrook. It's so new. It's almost like Reid got his contract extension and lost all his cares in the world and said, "We're going for it.''
Who are these guys? The Harlem Globetrotters? All I know is I like it, and it's working. They're hot, and they should win the NFC East.
5. I'd be shocked if Tom Coughlin didn't rip up his defensive staff after the season, or at least replace defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan. Results-oriented business. Giants are 2-6 in their past eight. Allowed 32 points a game in those eight outings. He has to do something.
6. The Vikings imported two bruisers Sunday, and it helped crush the Bengals. Rookie middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, making his first career start, twice stoned Bengals runners, and cornerback Antoine Winfield, back after six weeks away with a foot injury, led the Vikes with nine tackles, dropped an interception and broke up a pass. "Jasper's a hammerhead,'' said Jared Allen. "The boy can flat hit. Antoine's a beast, a playmaker. He gives the whole defense confidence.'' While the Vikings get to the bottom of why Adrian Peterson isn't playing normally -- he's rushing for three yards a clip the past two games -- they should be able to keep the score down against the Panthers, Bears and Giants if Winfield, especially, can stay on the field.
7. What? Mark Ingram as the next Emmitt? Quick scouting analysis from a veteran NFL man who has seen Heisman winner Mark Ingram several times in person over his two years at Alabama: "Has a similar style to Emmitt Smith ... Remains to be seen if he's as good. Very productive, breaks tackles, uses a stiff arm well ... Won't have off-the-chart measurables in terms of size and speed, but he's very strong through the hips and shoulders. Emmitt went 17 overall. Just a guess, but I think Ingram will go around 22.'' Ingram is a true sophomore this year, so he would not be eligible for the draft until at least April 2011, after his junior season. If he stays four years at 'Bama, he'd be coming out in the 2012 draft. Assuming there's a new CBA and there is a draft.
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