The Game Plan (cont.)
Defensive ends Jeremy Mincey (No. 94) and Austen Lane (No. 92), Jacksonville.
Mincey, a third-year player from Florida, and Lane, a fifth-round rookie from the football power of Murray (Ky.) State, were backups at the beginning of the year, but morphed into starting roles after Derrick Harvey was benched in October and Aaron Kampman was lost for the season a month ago with his second ACL tear in a year. Over the past five games, Jacksonville, with Mincey and Lane outside and young forces Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu inside, has held foes to 17.8 points per game. Just another sign that GM Gene Smith is going to be on my short list for executive of the year after the season; three of those four players (including Mincey, a former Jag who last played for them in 2008 before being waived injured in 2009) were Smith pickups this calendar year. They'll be instrumental in pressuring Jason Campbell and trying to stop Darren McFadden Sunday to try to keep their AFC South lead.
1. Matt Cassel to take a seat in San Diego. Sanity, please. An NFL team medic told me Thursday "it would be sheer negligence'' for Matt Cassel to play a football game four days after undergoing surgery for appendicitis. This doc told me he'd clear an appendicitis patient two weeks after the procedure if all went well with the recovery. I understand it was an [laparoscopic] procedure, and I understand Cassel [apparently] is champing at the bit to play in this big game, but unless there's some miracle healing that occurs in 48 hours, I don't see how it's worth it.
2. Percy Harvin's head. The Minnesota wideout missed last week's game with a migraine headache, and he missed Wednesday and Thursday workouts because of another one. His career is now officially under the microscope. Will he ever be the player the Vikings drafted, or will he consistently be a question mark because of those headaches?
3. Another durable Manning. Eli makes his 100th straight start Sunday in Minnesota. He's only 197 behind Favre, and 105 behind his brother.
4. How the Ravens bounce back. They're on the road, with an extra 31 hours to recover from the crushing loss to the Steelers (physically and mentally). But the Houston offense won't be a walkover Monday night.
5. More adjustments for the Steelers. Now Flozell Adams has a high ankle sprain, and if he can't make it to the starting gate or through the game against Cincinnati, that would mark the fifth offensive tackle for the Steelers this year. That news comes in the same week that Pittsburgh ruled out star defensive end Aaron Smith (torn triceps) until the playoffs, if he plays at all this year.
6. Maurice Jones-Drew against an old friend. MJD puts his five-game streak of 100-yard rushing games on the line against the Raiders as the Jags try to hold onto their one-game lead over Indy in the AFC South. In MJD's way: defensive tackle John Henderson, the longtime Jag turned Raider, who feels dissed by the way he was treated by Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio. Henderson was cut a week after Jacksonville made Tyson Alualu its first pick in the 2010 draft. "They'd better bring it,'' Henderson said of his former team. "That's all I've got to say.''
7. Rams on the road. Ridiculous stat of the week: It's been 33 years since the Rams won three straight on the road in the same season. They get to try (a longshot, to be sure) Sunday at New Orleans.
8. The return of Pierre Thomas. This is how transient the running game is in the NFL: Thomas has missed nine games with a sprained ankle, and it seemed like a major loss. In the past four games, Tiffin College's finest, Chris Ivory, has rushed for 304 yards and five touchdowns, and the Saints have averaged 33 points in those four wins. Not to be a wise guy, but you should have signed that extension when you had the chance before the season, Pierre.
9. The new and improved Jay Cutler against Bill Belichick's D. In the Bears' five-game winning streak, Cutler's been smart and not forcing the issue (10 touchdowns, three interceptions) and taking the short stuff much more. He'll need to do that, especially on a frigid, windy day at Soldier Field.
10. The new rules on hard hits. I'm in favor of them as much as anyone. Truly. But $15,000 for a two-handed shove on a quarterback, as Ndamukong Suh did to Jay Cutler? Absurd. Consistency, league. Consistency.