A more condensed version of my weekly NFL thoughts and observations, but I thought I'd get to them again this week if for no other reason that I don't have too much to say right now about the Pittsburgh Steelers other than I can't wait to see the team unleash hell in December, which Mike Tomlin vowed would happen in his postgame press conference following Sunday night's narrow defeat at Baltimore. If the Steelers do get on a roll and play some inspiring football; if they do rekindle that same comraderie that had them calling themselves a 'Band of Brothers' last year - well, if we are treated to them rising up in that way then wow, that's going to be special stuff to watch and enjoy. If they don't, well, hopefully then each and every person on the roster and coaching staff will reevaluate their entire approach to conditioning themselves physically and mentally for what's now essentially a 12 month long NFL season. For now, my head's held high and I'll remain optimistic and excited that this team has at least shown it has enough talent to beat anybody any week. I can't wait for Sunday to see if that hope will be eviscerated once and for all for the 2009 season or if it will extend for at least another four days when the Steelers will then square off against their rivals from along Lake Erie.
In the meantime, a few thoughts on what took place Sunday in the National Football League. I'll exclude Thanksgiving Day games, as I wrote a few things about the largely uneventful and uninteresting trio of games in my picks post this week.
* A good but not great week for my picks. The playing field in the NFL has definitely leveled out some - as it usually does - after a few weeks there early in the season when an unmistakable crop of both 'haves' and 'have nots' were emerging. The NFL changes every four weeks though, and unsurprisingly to me, it's gotten a bit tougher to make sense of which direction teams may or may not be heading. For example, I couldn't have been more confident Denver would struggle following their impressive start. I wasn't so sure they'd bounce back in such a big way against a Giants team that had been playing a bit better the previous two weeks. Is Denver back on track and a force to be reckoned with again? I'm not sure at the moment in all honesty after seeing last Thursday. I guess we'll get a bit closer to finding out when they travel to KC this weekend.
Or what about the Steelers? I'm sure there's a boatload of people who have the defending champs down and out. They may be right, but three relatively easy weeks from now and that could all change. Ah, December football. The opening leg of the season is long gone; the zigs and zags of mid-October and Novemeber football have left us thinking we know who's for real and who simply doesn't 'have it' this year.
Now, the real fun starts. For close to 20 teams in this league, it's still not too late to get on a serious roll, play your best football, sneak in to the playoffs playing the best football of the year, and shock the world with a run to the Super Bowl.
* After several weeks where I grumbled to myself, 'why, God, why was I not in Vegas this past weekend', it was back closer to reality this week. 7-4 on Sunday, with the two big whiffs coming with Carolina and St. Louis. The Panthers really crapped the bed on the road against a very beatable New York Jets team. The loss drops Carolina to 4-7 and puts to rest any glimmer of hope they may have had about sneaking in to the playoffs. Seattle meanwhile gets their first road victory since last year when they beat the same lowly St. Louis Rams. Never good to bet on a Kyle Boller led team.
* As for my other two misses, shouldn't have talked myself out of Buffalo playing better football under the new Perry Fewell regime and San Francisco outmuscling a not very talented or consistent Jacksonville Jaguars team. Buffalo earns a well earned home victory over the beat up Miami Dolphins. Kudos to Fewell on his first NFL victory as a head coach. In the loss, Ricky Williams eclipsed the century mark for the third consecutive game. He also scored his 9th rushing TD of the season, the second highest season total he's had in his remarkably odd but subtly impressive NFL career.
* Still not sure I like the Larry Johnson signing despite his 100+ yard day running the football on Sunday. What happens when Cedric Benson returns and a decision has to be made between who gets the bulk of the carries? I'm hoping for Cincy's sake (I guess) that they're just renting LJ for the extreme short term and will revert back to Benson and the promising rookie Bernard Scott. But you never know with Cincy. This could be the kind of entanglement that disrupts what's otherwise been a remarkable turnaround organizationally in terms of team chemistry. Anyway, I like this Bengals team. I like the makeup and strategic approach quite a bit, and if things break their way in terms of playoff matchups, they could very well find themselves playing for a trip to the Super Bowl.
* No surprise to me that New Orleans' offense had their way with New England's defense. Bring on the ribbing from the peanut gallery (if you weren't aware, I'm a huge Drew Brees fan) about the man crush growing ever-larger, but Brees continues to back up what I've said about the Saints quarterback since he was in 8th grade - his accuracy is legitimately mind boggling. 5 TDs on the evening for Brees, as New Orleans dusts New England at home and hands them their fourth loss of the year. All have come away from home. I still think there's about an 75% likelihood that the Pats hold on to the AFC East, but next week's game between the Pats and Dolphins in Miami could make things very interesting if the 'Fins were able to win and move within a game of the Pats.
* The Redskins continue to play better. They also continue to find new and amazing ways to lose football games. I would be shocked if the Redskins don't beat either the Giants or the Cowboys when they host the two rivals in Weeks 15 and 16. Both the Giants and the Cowboys will be fighting for their playoff lives, and Washington can still eek out some gratification from this year by standing in the way of either team.
* Goodness gracious. The Chicago Bears are a really mediocre football team. Not sure how we lost to them. Oh wait, I remember. Jeff Reed whiffed on two easy attempts. The Bears drop their fourth straight game. Jay Cutler does hit the 20 interception mark in defeat though! The 'franchise quarterback' has very little help around him, but it's getting silly how sloppy he's been with the football the majority of weeks this year. By the way, it's comical watching Broncos fans take such enormous pleasure out of watching him fail. Amazing display of insecurity. This of course was mostly coming during the Broncos and Kyle Orton's recent slide back to reality. 'But look how bad Cutler is doing, at least.' Maybe I'm being too harsh. Nah. Denver's up there with my least favorite teams in all of sports.
* My advice to fans across the league who want to pigeon hole Vince Young as an unintelligent, selfish, run-oriented only quarterback who's incapable of ever developing in to an all around great NFL signal caller - beware of the tendency humans have to monolithically lump people and objects in to convenient, identifiable categories. I'm not talking about race necessarily here. More like the notion that a quarterback like Vince Young can and will never develop in to a consistently productive NFL quarterback in the pocket and on the scoreboard where it counts based on his not perfect mechanics, his displays of immaturity early in his career, and his tendency to take off running rather than dissecting defenses from the pocket - which is of course undeniably necessary to consistently lead your team to greatness in today's NFL. He's not there yet, not by a long shot. But he's also not that far off from where Ben Roethlisberger was early in his career if you think about it. He's won a lot of games, not had fantastic statistics, turned the ball over a bit too much, and displayed a flair for the dramatic that's unteachable.
As for his accuracy and ability to ever materialize in to an above average, if not ever spectacular, pocket passer. We'll see. It will come down to his willingness to put in the work. But it's not like we're talking about someone who's never been able to throw the ball on target. The guy was after all the NCAA leader in passing efficiency his junior year in college. He obviously was arguably (in some more shall we say 'modern' circles) the greatest college player of all time thanks to his running abilities, but he was no slouch throwing the rock by the time he was a junior. I was in Austin during those years and watched him develop from a guy who couldn't throw the ball at all as a redshirt freshman, to someone who was subtly very accurate with many of his throws, despite the funky release and tendency to have the occasional total clunker thrown in there amongst the good throws.
Anyway, I thought and said as much that Jeff Fisher totally blew it waiting 6 games to yank Kerry Collins in favor of Young. It's not that Collins was the source of all of Tennessee's troubles. That's the argument people who refuse to understand what Young brings to the table in terms of pizazz and leadership say when arguing that Collins should have still been in there as long as he was. It's that he injected an entirely fresh set of competitive spirit to that team - on both sides of the ball. Now, if he can just grow up and not act like a total teenager the next time adversity sets in, and he and the Tennessee Titans will be just fine. In fact, I'd probably bet good money that if that organization can keep him and Chris Johnson together for the next 5-7 years, they'll hoist a Super Bowl trophy one of those years, (most likely closer to 2013 or '14). Their offense is in pretty damn good shape - Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, CJ, Lendale White, VY, a solid offensive line - plenty to work with. Their defense needs a bit of retooling though. Good news for them is they'll have the cap space to make a splash in free agency this next couple of years if they so choose. If they spend wisely and continue drafting well, they'll be right there a few years down the road with as dangerous a squad as anybody's.
* The Arizona Cardinals were the beneficiary of Tennessee's latest take down. The Cards have their perfect road record tarnished with the loss and fall to 7-4 on the year. Kurt Warner sat this one out and should return next week when the Cardinals host the Vikings. All of a sudden, the Cardinals fanbase (is there such a thing?) might be squirming just a bit. If the Cards lose to the Vikings, and the 49ers take down the Seahawks this weekend, the following Sunday's game between San Fran and Arizona suddenly is for the division lead. San Francisco already won the first meeting...on the road. I trust Ken Whisenhunt & Co. to not implode in any way, shape, or form. But by losing that nailbiter in Nashville, the Cards suddenly have a smaller margin for error this next couple of weeks. We'll learn something about this Cardinals team this next two weeks. I like their chances to shut the door early and often on San Francisco, beginning with a statement win this coming weekend against the Minnesota Vikings.