The Bears are in big trouble. A month ago, Chicago was 7-1 and vying for NFC home-field through the playoffs. Now the Bears are hanging onto the sixth playoff spot by their fingernails, quarterback Jay Cutler's hurt again and they're 1-4 in their last five games. Worse, Green Bay's coming to town Sunday trying to win the NFC North and, at the same time, send the Bears careening out of the playoffs for the second year in a row. Futures are on the line. Brian Urlacher's. Maybe Lovie Smith's.
And starting at quarterback for the Cardinals, from Utah State University, No. 00, Kent Somers! Week after week, just when you think it can't get worse, Arizona's quarterbacking does. For two weeks it was Ryan Lindley playing the fool; Sunday in a 58-0 loss at Seattle, it was John Skelton. Next week, Detroit comes to the desert with Arizona, on a nine-game losing streak and imploding like no other team in football. Kent Somers may suit up. Somers, the Arizona Republic beat man covering the team, asked Ken Whisenhunt who would play quarterback next week against the Lions. "Can you play?'' Whisenhunt said. He wasn't smiling. The Cards long for the days of Max Hall.
For the 47th straight year, there won't be a home team in the Super Bowl. This is not exactly true; when San Francisco made the Super Bowl in January 1985, the game was played in Palo Alto on the Stanford campus. Close enough to be a home game, just not in the home stadium. Ditto the Rams in Pasadena in 1980. But the Saints losing for the eighth time this year means New Orleans will host the game this year and have a chip on its shoulder with the homeboys not playing.
As Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com said Sunday night, "The commissioner better have his Popemobile when he goes to the Super Bowl this year." He's right: New Orleans will be an unfriendly place, and that's putting it mildly, for commissioner Roger Goodell, with Saints fans certain he went too far in the punishment over the bounty scandal.
(In the next few days, we'll see if the supposed neutral appeals officer hearing the player appeals, ex-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, cuts the four players some slack.)
Anyway, I thought interim coach Joe Vitt said something prescient after the 52-27 mauling at the hands of the Giants Sunday: "When you're losing the way that were losing, you're a fragile football team. We've got a lot of guys who are used to winning and doing things the right way around here. But unfortunately, we don't have enough of them. All of a sudden something goes bad and its, oh, here we go again, instead of just setting your jaw and drawing a line in the sand and having some mental toughness to get it done."
The Saints have a lot of work to do, particularly on defense, to make sure they don't waste year 14 of the career of Drew Brees next season ... and to make sure they get Sean Payton back as coach.
Eliminate the kickoff? Riiiiiiiiight. David Wilson of the Giants ran back kicks for a total of 227 yards Sunday, including an electric 97-yard touchdown return, the longest for the franchise since the LBJ Administration. Tampa coach Greg Schiano's idea -- proposed to Roger Goodell when Schiano was still the Rutgers coach -- to eliminate the kickoff in favor of allowing a team to opt to go for it on 4th-and-15 from its 30-yard line ("So arbitrary it sounds like it was pulled out of a hat,'' one coach said Friday) seemed like a longshot before Sunday. But after the return electricity in the Meadowlands it seems ever more unlikely.
In fact, former officiating czar Mike Pereira, writing at FOXSports.com, said it's the type of proposal that will cause the Competition Committee to roll their eyes and quickly go to the next proposal. We'll see. I think Goodell's point was, excitement or not, if there's evidence that concussion and other neck and knee injuries can be reduced significantly by the elimination of the kickoff, it's only a matter of time before something takes its place -- for the long-term health of the game and its players.
The Adrian Peterson story.
Fifty weeks after surgery to reconstruct a battered knee, Minnesota's Peterson's has amazing round numbers, the best in his career after 13 games: 1,600 yards, 6.0 yards per carry, 10 rushing touchdowns.
"You need 400 yards to get to 2,000,'' I said to Peterson an hour after his seventh straight 100-yard game, a 21-14 win over the Bears. "Think you can do it?"
"Oh yeah,'' he said. "Without a doubt. It'll happen. Two thousand, that's easy. I'm eying Eric.''
Dickerson? Eric Dickerson's NFL record, the 2,105-yard mark set in 1984? That's the one. Peterson needs 506 yards to break the record. That's 169 yards a game. Minnesota has lost Percy Harvin for the year; Harvin would have deflected some of the defensive pressure from Peterson. And Christian Ponder is slumping badly. So it's going to be tough, particularly against three of the top 15 rush defenses in the league: at St. Louis, at Houston, Green Bay at home.
That Peterson can even talk about this is amazing, given the fact that it wasn't a lock he'd be able to start the season after his knee reconstruction late last December. In four of the first six games, coach Leslie Frazier opted for a light (17 carries or less) load for Peterson; he was still breaking up scar tissue in the knee as he ran. But in the last two weeks, he's been a workhorse: 21 carries for 210 yards last week, 31 for 154 against the Bears.
"I feel like I'm there, but there's more to come,'' Peterson said. "I'm not surprised at all. In fact, this is what I envisioned. When I was running hills in the offseason, running the gassers, I planned to come back stronger than ever, and I was convinced I could.
"Today was a huge day for us as a team. You felt the energy in the locker room before the game. We lost last week in Green Bay, and we really needed this game, and everyone just knew we'd respond to the adversity well.''
The Vikings are in a clump of teams at 7-6, and they may have to win out to make the playoffs. That's fine with Peterson, because winning means playing well, and playing well means he won't have to do it all himself. But to have a chance at Dickerson's record, he'll need 80 carries, minimum. And he could use a more productive quarterback than the one who's thrown for just 369 yards in the last three games.
The forgotten rookie quarterback.
On draft weekend, Michigan State's Kirk Cousins thought there were a lot of teams that might pick him. Washington wasn't one of them, not after taking Robert Griffin III in the first round. But the Redskins took him at pick 102. "I was scratching my head too,'' Cousins said Sunday evening, "I think like a lot of people were."
But Cousins settled into a support role for Griffin, and they became good friends. Cousins, a team source told me, has been an excellent guy for Griffin to bounce ideas and frustrations off of. "A football career is a marathon, not a sprint,'' said Cousins. "And I realize how good it is for my career that I'm in a place where the game is taught so well. If I ever want to coach someday, now I know all about the zone-read scheme, and that's something that may grow in the game as the years go on.''
So Cousins was on the sideline -- "with my overcoat on for about three hours'' -- when Griffin hurt his knee against the Ravens. Washington trailed 28-20, and Cousins got to three five or six passes in haste on the sideline, trying to get the blood flowing a little on a raw day at Fedex Field. He hustled onto the field on 3rd-and-6 from the Washington 40 with 1:42 to go; his crossing-pattern pass to Pierre Garcon was on target, but Garcon got mugged by backup cornerback Chris Johnson, and interference was called. Now Griffin came back for four snaps before the knee was just too painful to move, and back came Cousins. Second-and-20, Baltimore 26. Cousins found Leonard Hankerson open for 15. Now 36 seconds left. Timeout. Third-and-5. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan called a play with Cousins, in the pocket, instructed to take his time, survey his options, and pick the most open one.
"I didn't like the look I got right away,'' Cousins said. "Something inside me said to take off and try to make a play. That's what you do sometimes as a quarterback. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.''
But how many sometimes come when you're cold off the bench, with your team's playoff life at stake?
Not many sometimes.
"It happened so fast,'' Cousins said. "I definitely didn't want to take a sack. We weren't playing The Little Sisters of the Poor out there. I was out of the pocket, and I just channeled my inner RGIII, and Pierre got open in the corner of the end zone.''
Cousins threw a perfect ball, over one corner and just before the safety came in to hit Garcon. Touchdown.
Now it was 28-26. Two-point conversion. The call was quarterback draw all the way. Cousins saw a hole and made it past the goal line before Ed Reed could blast him. Tie game. Washington got a long punt return and won on Kai Forbath's field goal in overtime.
"One of the things I've learned about being a quarterback,'' said Cousins, and for a minute, he sounded like a Penn professor of Football 101 with a tweed coat on, "is that it's a balance between being a robot and being an artist. On the touchdown to Garcon, that's being an artist; you don't really know how it's going to look, but you've just got to get out of the pocket and create something. On the two-point conversion, you're a robot. You take the play and do what's called, because you know if it's blocked the right way and set up the right way, it'll work -- the quarterback just executes it."
Cousins did his first NFL spike in the end zone after the robot play. When he got to the sideline, Griffin hugged him and said, "Thank you." A region of fans said the same thing.
Jason Garrett's best day as a head coach.
When Garrett came off the field after one of his biggest wins as a coach -- a 20-19 upset of the Bengals, scrambling for 10 points in the last seven minutes to win -- his speech to the team would wait. "I need to call Jerry Brown's mother right now,'' Garrett told Cowboys PR man Rich Dalrymple, and he disappeared for a few minutes to make the call. There would be a memorial service Tuesday, and Brown's mom will be there, and the team will present her the game ball that Garrett had with him Sunday. It all seems so empty, of course, because a service and a ball cannot bring her boy back from this awful death, from an irresponsible accident by his best friend, but what do you do after a senseless and awful death? You do the best you can.
"There's no road map for this,'' Garrett said quietly, 90 minutes after the game. "No script.''
He didn't know what to do; who does? So he just talked to the team about Jerry Brown -- and then to the Dallas media afterward, and then to me.
"You know how I am around the building,'' Garrett said before the Cowboys boarded their charter home from Cincinnati. "I'm always asking, 'How you doing?' to everyone I see. Well, Jerry Brown gets here in October, and he's beating me to it. 'How you doing, coach!' That's Jerry.
"The first week he's here, he's playing every snap in practice like it's a game. That first week, he wins our scout team player of the week. He's rushing the passer, giving all our tackles -- Tyron Smith, Doug Free, Jermey Parnell -- everything they can handle. I take notes at practice, and I can't tell you how often I wrote down, 'Jerry Brown' with an exclamation point. We were looking to get him up on the active roster, and he would have been before the end of the year. He was definitely an NFL player. I just told the team, 'Look, we got our ass kicked this weekend with what happened. So what are we gonna do about it? We're going to channel our emotion, all of us, and honor Jerry Brown. We're gonna play this game the way he would have played it if he were active in the game.' ''
They did. Like Kansas City last week, they found a way to win a game they had no business winning. Like Kansas City last week, when the doors to the locker room swung open 15 minutes after the game, no player rejoiced. It was quiet. Very quiet. A teammate was lost, and another, nose tackle Josh Brent, faced the loss of his football career and having to live with knowing he killed his best friend with a stupid, immature act. Life's not fair, and neither is the NFL schedule. But when a coach leads the way Crennel did last week and the way Garrett did this week, a team at least has a chance to cope with the unthinkable the best way it can.
Each week, thanks to play-by-play game dissection by ProFootballFocus.com, I'll look at one important matchup or individual performance metric from one of the Sunday games.
Before the weekend, Adrian Peterson needed 139 yards a game for the next four games to break 2,000 yards for the first time in his illustrious career. His best to date was in 2008, when he gained 1,760 (110.0 yards per game). What makes this task all the more difficult is that with Percy Harvin not playing since Week 9 and Christian Ponder averaging 131 yards passing for the last six games, Peterson's been the only offensive threat the Vikings have. So after watching the game this week, will he crack 2,000 or won't he?
The Pros: "The Bears have an excellent defense and, though they paid scant regard to Ponder, regularly playing with nine men up to stop the run, Peterson still gained 154 yards; 125 of his yards came after contact because he consistently managed to squeeze additional yardage out. This is something he's done throughout the year. His line will get him 2.3 yards per run and he'll average 3.9 after contact. The average number of yards after contact throughout the league is 2.5, so essentially his ability in this area has netted him just shy of an additional 400 yards. In short, the Bears tackled well and he still got the required figure without a huge amount of help from his normally good run-blocking line."
The Cons: "After gaining 104 yards in the first quarter on 11 carries Sunday, Peterson's next 20 runs only produced 50 yards. He became the Bears' sole focus as Ponder was trusted less and less to throw the ball. The quarterback passed for only 91 yards, and unless he can improve dramatically, Peterson will be the only target of every defense he faces over the next three weeks. No matter how good he is personally, that may not be enough. For him to rush for 2,106 yards and break Eric Dickerson's all-time record, the way he said after the game he hopes to? Very, very difficult."
In Summary: "To hit 2,000, Peterson would need 133 yards per game against the No. 12 (Rams), No. 2 (Texans) and No. 14 (Packers) defenses against the run by yardage. With Ponder looking less and less like a viable NFL quarterback every week, it seems unlikely that Peterson will get the support he needs to succeed. To put it another way, even if he picks up 200 yards against one of those teams, he still needs 100 against both the others. This looks like a bridge too far even for the best running back of his generation."