Game of the Week
The line: Patriots by 6½
The story: Once upon a time, Tim Tebow's critics claimed he couldn't play, couldn't throw and couldn't win. Now that he's 7-1, they have to change their attack. So now it's that he's lucky or is carried by a defense that, oh, by the way, yielded close to 500 yards to a rookie quarterback two weeks ago. Or maybe it's just that he hasn't beaten anybody.
In any case, the more Tebow and the Broncos win, the more it infuriates critics who refuse to admit that maybe, just maybe, they might have been wrong. So they search for something, anything, not to give the guy credit, waiting for him to screw up and to declare themselves victors.
All I know is that the defense that is 7-1 with Tebow was 1-4 with Kyle Orton. And the guy who couldn't throw? His passer rating is higher than Cam Newton or Andy Dalton. And the last-place Broncos? Yep, they're on top of the AFC West.
I know, Tebow isn't doing this alone, but consider this the next time you shred the guy: He has one of the league's worst sets of running backs and receivers around him, with Denver trading away Brandon Lloyd -- its top pass catcher -- soon after Tebow took over. OK, so Willis McGahee has been a load. He was also all but washed up when Baltimore let him walk. And tell me what you know about Tebow's go-to receiver, Eric Decker. Someone? Anyone?
Sometimes I don't think Tebow gets enough credit for what's going on, and what's going on is that Denver and the Broncos are rolling. Tebow has done for the Broncos what Tom Brady does for New England, which is make everyone around him better. So he doesn't have the ideal throwing motion or his footwork is screwed up or his accuracy isn't what you would like. Big deal. The guy wins.
Of course, so does Brady, which makes this the most difficult assignment yet for Tebow and the Broncos. Brady is the game's best quarterback. We know that. But we also know you can beat him by taking advantage of New England's 32nd-ranked defense, extending drives with patient play-calling and keeping Brady nailed to the bench. Pittsburgh followed that script in October, and Brady -- on the field for three plays in the first quarter -- was unable to lift the Patriots from behind.
Still, it's New England, and there's this feeling that if anybody can solve Tebow and the Broncos it's Bill Belichick. And maybe that's true. Only New England better have a substantial lead by the end of the fourth quarter because every week is Groundhog Day with Denver. The Broncos rally from 15 down. They rally from 10 down. They rally from eight down.
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They are the season's best story and one of the league's hottest teams. Now they are up against the gold standard, and I wouldn't minimize their chances. If there's one thing we all learned this season, it's never, ever, ever to count the Denver Broncos out.
Something to consider: Brady is 1-5 vs. Denver in the regular season and 0-1 in the playoffs. The Broncos are the only opponent that has a winning record against him.
Three games I would like to see
The line: Lions by 1½
The story: The Raiders are the most penalized team in the NFL. The Lions are fourth. Neither team has been all that great lately, though Detroit recovered last weekend vs. Minnesota ... barely holding off the Vikings when, yep, another penalty was overlooked on the game-winning play. This game may be all about discipline, and let's face it, folks: Neither team has it.
But Detroit has a hot quarterback. Oakland does not. The past two weeks have been a nightmare for Carson Palmer and the Raiders, with the club outclassed, outplayed and outscored. Star running back Darren McFadden might be shelved for the season, and that puts more heat on Palmer to stand and deliver ... especially with the Raiders' defense surrendering a zillion yards and points.
But the Raiders are the back story here. The focus is on the return of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh after two weeks off for bad behavior. The Lions were 1-1 without him but surrendered 59 points in two games. Not good. But look more carefully: Where the Lions were beating opponents with defense before, they're getting hammered there now. In their past five starts they have surrendered at least 27 points in each game.
That means we could be in for a track meet, especially with the return of Denarius Moore. If the Raiders can keep Detroit's pass rush off Palmer -- Raiders quarterbacks have been sacked 37 times this season -- he can ... and should ... pick apart their secondary. Then the race is on.
Something to consider: The Lions' defense has six touchdowns (four interceptions, two fumble recoveries), the most by the club since 1967.
The line: Eagles by 2½
The story: The Eagles are 1-5 at home and 1-8 in their past nine games at Lincoln Financial Field dating back to last season. Nevertheless, I like them here because last weekend at Miami they finally looked like the team they were supposed to be. They were effective on offense, effective on defense and won easily.
Of course, having Michael Vick helped. So did the return of Jeremy Maclin. For once, the Eagles jumped to a big lead and were able to close out their opponent. I can see that happening again basically because I don't see these Jets resembling the club that ran the table down the stretch in 2009. That's the year coach Rex Ryan wants to reprise as he tells players to make a Super Bowl run, but that 2009 team was better at running the ball and playing defense.
"I don't think we're a Super Bowl team right now," said linebacker Bart Scott, "or even a playoff team."
The key for New York is pressuring Vick, who is still suffering from sore ribs, and forcing the Eagles to play from behind. They commit a raft of mistakes, with Vick giving up more fumbles and throwing more interceptions than he did a year ago, and some of that has to do with playing catch-up. But Philadelphia has the NFC's leading rusher in LeSean McCoy, too, which means they can attack on two fronts -- and I would start with McCoy.
The Eagles' task is similar, with pressure on Mark Sanchez critical to their success. Philadelphia is one of the league's top pass-rushing units, and the Jets' protection hasn't been all that terrific. But lately it has, with Sanchez sacked three times in his past three starts -- all wins. He has nine touchdowns (seven passes, two runs) and only one interception in that time, and avoiding critical mistakes is how the Jets win here.
All I know is that the game is essential to the Jets' playoff hopes but this is not the club that went 11-5 on the road the past two years. These guys are 2-4, and that's something that better get corrected, and fast. Because if the Jets make the playoffs, they make the playoffs as a wild card ... which means road trips.
Something to consider: Philadelphia is 8-0 vs. the Jets, the best undefeated record currently in the NFL.
The line: Ravens by 2½
The story: People tell me the Chargers and Philip Rivers are back and that they're making their customary December drive for the playoffs. Maybe, except there are a couple of things here: 1) They're almost certainly too late to the party; 2) Their past two wins were against two of the worst teams out there -- Buffalo and Jacksonville. So I don't know what to make of San Diego, other than it can serve as a speed bump for Baltimore as the Ravens make their stretch drive for the playoffs.
Baltimore is tied with Pittsburgh for first in the AFC North and cannot afford to lose one of its final three games. Otherwise, it risks losing the division lead and a first-round bye.
The problem here is that the Ravens are at their worst on the road, with all three losses there. You can look it up: Tennessee, Jacksonville and Seattle beat them, and that's what makes people think San Diego may be a tougher out than it looks. Except ... except San Diego's offensive line is in tatters, and that's never good when you're playing the Ravens.
The Chargers start Jared Gaither at left tackle, and if his name sounds familiar, it should. He was a starter with Baltimore before the Ravens tired of his attitude and let him walk. Kansas City let him, go, and he's the starter because Marcus McNeill is one of several San Diego offensive linemen sitting this one out. That's why this game looks like a Baltimore victory waiting to happen.
Rivers is terrific when he's not pressured, but I guarantee he feels the heat here. Baltimore will blitz, and it probably blitzes often -- hoping to force Rivers into the mistakes that crippled him and his teammates earlier this season.
One other problem: Inside linebackers Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler didn't practice this week for the Chargers and will be limited, and that's an issue with Ray Rice on the other side of the ball. Rice is the league's fifth-leading rusher, the Ravens' leading receiver and Baltimore's touchdown leader.
But the Chargers can run, too. In fact, Ryan Mathews has three straight starts where he has run for 100 yards, and he's averaging 6.6 yards a carry in that time. So give him the ball, slow down the rush, control the clock and maybe, just maybe, you pull the upset.
Pittsburgh can only hope.
Something to consider: The Ravens are 7-0 vs. the AFC West under John Harbaugh.
Monday night lights
The line: 49ers by 1½
The story: This one's all about Ben Roethlisberger and whether he starts ... or plays. Big Ben suffered a high-ankle sprain in last week's defeat of Cleveland and hasn't practiced since. But teammates continue to believe he'll play, and he might ... because it's a one-game season for the Steelers.
|Monday night's Pittsburgh-San Francisco game is an easy pick: If Big Ben plays, the Steelers win. (Getty Images)|
Normally, I would nix that idea and say let the guy heal. But the Steelers want to win their division and gain a first-round bye, and you don't get there by pampering Roethlisberger. Try to get him healthy for Monday, then let the guy sit the next two weeks.
I know, Pittsburgh's offensive line offers minimal protection, and center Maurkice Pouncey is coming off an ankle injury. But aside from rookie Aldon Smith, San Francisco doesn't exactly have a great pass-rush. Try to limit the hits on Roethlisberger, keep San Francisco in check with your defense and hold on.
The 49ers have issues of their own, with some mysterious goings on with Frank Gore. The star back only had 10 carries a week ago, and that's not how San Francisco operates. Without Gore, the pressure's on quarterback Alex Smith, and look what has happened the past few weeks -- he has been sacked 18 times in three games. He was sacked 20 times in his first 10 starts. Furthermore, the 49ers can't produce touchdowns in the red zone.
But Gore's health and Smith's protection aren't the only concerns. Linebacker Patrick Willis is still bothered by a sore hamstring that kept him out of last weekend's game. Willis did not practice Thursday, and his status for Monday is unclear. The same goes for left tackle Joe Staley, who hasn't been cleared to return to practice after suffering a concussion vs. Arizona.
The 49ers have struggled with 3-4 defenses this season, and they might struggle again. Look for Pittsburgh to dial up the heat on Smith, hoping to force turnovers that yield a short field or result in a score, and lotsa luck, fellas. Nobody commits fewer turnovers than the 49ers (10).
Bottom line: Expect a low-scoring game, with Roethlisberger's availability swinging the pendulum.
Something to consider: The Steelers have won their past six on Monday night, while Roethlisberger is 8-2 on Mondays for his career. He also has four touchdowns and no interceptions vs. NFC opponents this season.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Bills by 1½
The story: The Bills haven't won a game in nearly two months, and that wasn't even in this country. It was in Canada. That's another way of saying that what was once one of the best feel-good stories of the season has gone south, with Buffalo oh-for its past six starts and 1-7 over its past eight.
Yeah, I know, Buffalo has been ravaged by injuries. But tell me a club that hasn't. Hey, Miami's playing with Matt Moore at quarterback, with the career backup taking over after Chad Henne was lost for the year.
Anyway, I'm not sure what interest there is here, other than the Todd Bowles factor. He's Miami's interim head coach, which I don't really get at this point of the season because the old head coach (Tony Sparano) had the Dolphins playing hard.
Chan Gailey had the Bills playing hard, too, but then injuries set in, Fred Jackson bowed out, losses started piling up and, well, that's why this game makes it here, folks. If nothing else, it's a winner for fans in Buffalo and Miami. They can finish Christmas shopping Sunday afternoon and feel as if they didn't miss anything ... because they didn't.
Something to consider: The Bills have held opponents to 17 sacks, the fewest in the NFL.
Upset of the week
The story: I know a 1-½-point spread doesn't exactly make for an upset. In fact, with home teams generally given three points, the Steelers look more like the favorites. Anyway, the spread is what it is, and I'm taking Pittsburgh.
First of all, I think Roethlisberger plays. Second, the 49ers are struggling with their offense. Third, the 49ers are struggling with the red zone. And last, the 49ers are struggling with 3-4 defenses.
I know, San Francisco is playing for that first-round bye. But Pittsburgh is playing for a division title that could yield a first-round bye. Both teams are motivated, but only one has a big-game quarterback.
If, that is, he plays.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo: He's 2-0 vs. Tampa Bay, with eight touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 147.2.
2. Anyone in the Buffalo secondary: In six games at home this season the Bills have 12 interceptions.
3. Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson: He has six interceptions vs. Kansas City in his career, including two returned for touchdowns.
4. Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul: In his past three games vs. Washington, he has four sacks, two fumbles recoveries and a forced fumble.
5. Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs: He has seven sacks in his past three starts, needing only 2½ to set a single-season franchise record and is going against a San Diego offensive line that has undergone so many changes it looks like a quilt.
1. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy vs. 16-0: McCarthy hasn't said if he would be open to resting starters down the stretch, but he'll have a tough time winning over his locker room. That's because players want to try for a clean sweep of the season. "As players, we would probably like to finish this thing out if we get a chance," said quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Peyton Manning and teammates expressed the same opinion in 2009, but it didn't work. Coach Jim Caldwell started sitting starters in Game 15.
2. Philadelphia cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha vs. the Jets: Asomugha, who played for Rex Ryan's brother Rob in Oakland was, as he put it, "real close" to signing with the Jets this summer as an unrestricted free agent. Instead, he took the money and ran to Philadelphia, where the Eagles are struggling and all but out of the playoffs. Asomugha said he has "no regrets" with the move, though he admitted he wished he and the Eagles won more.
3. San Diego left tackle Jared Gaither vs. his ex-team: Two years ago, Gaither was the starter in Baltimore. Then he climbed into John Harbaugh's doghouse and out of Baltimore. Now he returns to face his ex-teammates, and good luck. Ray Lewis returns for the first time in five games, and Terrell Suggs is everywhere. "He's beaten a lot of different tackles a lot of different ways," Gaither told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "He comes with the total array." Gaither better come with the total array, too. Suggs last week had three sacks and won his third AFC Defensive Player of the Week award this season.
4. Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen vs. the city of New Orleans: In an interview last week, the star defensive end trashed Detroit and New Orleans at the same time. Now he's offering an apology to the people he offended ... saying it was in jest ... though he continued to knock the city itself. Good thing this game is in Minnesota.
5. San Francisco's offense vs. the red zone: The 49ers have three touchdowns in their past 19 drives inside their opponents' 20 and are a league-worst 16 for 45. Maybe that's why the 49ers took the unusual step this week of issuing a "fan advisory," asking spectators to reduce "the decibel level" when the 49ers are on offense. Alex Smith was sacked during the last home game when fans were doing the wave.
Five things that may interest only me
1. Four teams -- Arizona, Cincinnati, Denver and the Giants -- have five fourth-quarter comeback wins this season. Since the NFL merger, only five teams have had six comeback victories in a season -- with the 2009 Indianapolis Colts (7) at the head of the class.
2. With two more touchdown passes this season, New England's Tom Brady joins Brett Favre as the only two quarterbacks in league history to have 35 or more touchdown passes in three seasons.
3. Five rookie quarterbacks have combined for 17 wins this season, led by Cincinnati's Andy Dalton with seven. That ties for third most in any season since the NFL merger. In 2008, rookie quarterbacks combined for a record 22 victories.
4. The Pittsburgh-San Francisco game marks only the fourth time in league history that Monday Night Football has two teams with at least 10 victories each and a winning percentage of .750 or better. The 49ers played in all three previous games.
5. Under coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens are at their best on defense when it matters most. In December and January, they have an NFL-high 41 takeaways and have allowed an average of 14.3 points per game, also a league best.
Numbers that may mean something
0: Rushing TDs allowed by San Francisco this season
1: Touchdown passes needed by Aaron Rodgers to set a single-season Green Bay franchise record
5-1: Eli Manning's record vs. Washington at home
13: Consecutive games with at least two Aaron Rodgers TD passes
14: Individual 400-yard passing performances
16-14: Ravens on the road under John Harbaugh
22-2: Philip Rivers' career record in December
24: Combined sacks by Philadelphia's Jason Babin and Trent Cole
99: Individual 300-yard passing performances
• Buffalo: Partly cloudy, high of 36
• Chicago: Sunny, high of 43
• Houston: Mostly cloudy, high of 65 (retractable roof)
• Indianapolis: Sunny, high of 44 (retractable roof)
• Kansas City, Mo.: Partly cloudy, high of 55
• Minneapolis: Dome
• East Rutherford, N.J.: Partly cloudy, high of 40
• St. Louis: Dome
• Oakland, Calif.: mostly sunny, high of 58
• Glendale, Ariz.: Few showers, high of 56 (retractable roof)
• Denver: Mostly sunny, high of 50
• Philadelphia: Sunny, high of 43
• San Diego Sunny, high of 61
Where we will be
• I'll be in San Diego to take Laz, Eddie and Darren Bennett to breakfast Sunday at the Encinitas Café. Then I move on to San Francisco on Monday to see if Jim Harbaugh boosts brother John with a defeat of Pittsburgh.
• Pete Prisco will be in Tampa Saturday night to call time before Dan Bailey's last-second kick.
• Mike Freeman will be in Denver to Tebow.