NFL Pregame Ritual (Week 14)
Welcome back to the Pregame Ritual. It's a miracle I was able to get the column in this week. At a coffee shop Thursday, I left my laptop sitting behind the Pittsburgh offensive line, and when I got back from the counter, it had been smashed to bits. All the players were staring at each other, wondering what had happened. It was awkward to watch.
Here is a look at this Sunday's action:
Three key games to watch
Cincinnati at Minnesota (1 p.m. ET)
There seems to be a lot of unnecessary worry coming out of Minnesota all of a sudden. Sure, Minnesota's franchise player has rushed for 100-plus yards only twice in 12 weeks and just got a ticket for driving his car at a speed that would lap a DeLorean. And sure, Minnesota's vaunted defense hasn't held a potential playoff team to fewer than 23 points all season. And yes, Minnesota's quarterback/savior just admitted he threw into quadruple coverage in Week 13 solely out of anger, displaying the emotional temperament of a child. But there is nothing to worry about. After all, Minnesota has this guy in charge.
San Diego at Dallas (4:15 p.m. ET)
The Cowboys really know how to keep NFL fans happy. They've taken the most mundane parts of football -- punting and kicking -- and made them among the most exciting parts of the game. We still hold our breaths every time a punt approaches the mothership hanging from the ceiling at Cowboys Stadium. Now they are bringing back the author of the most famous botched snap of the decade to handle holder duties again, turning every PAT into a potential confidence-shattering adventure. They are an electric return man away from turning their games into the movie "Crank" -- all action, all the time.
Philadelphia at New York Giants (8:20 p.m. ET)
Would it be possible to implement old-school, WWE "Loser Leaves Town" rules for this matchup? These teams seem to be on national TV every week, and drastic measures need to be taken so we aren't forced to watch their every game. Both are maddeningly inconsistent and don't really have any defining characteristics that make them fun to follow. It would be better for everyone if just one of them survived this weekend and the other had to leave the league until next season.
Play we'd like to see
Now that the Titans have been all but eliminated from playoff contention, we'd like to see them begin working on their offensive destiny -- becoming the first pro team to adopt the A-11. Sure, the rules prevent them from sending all 11 players out into a pass pattern, but they still could incorporate the key innovations, such as lining up with two quarterbacks. Imagine if the Titans could secure the services of a left-handed QB like Michael Vick or Tim Tebow and line him up next to Vince Young. The guy with the ball always would be able to roll to his strong side and would present a dual running/passing threat. Throw in Chris Johnson's speed, and the Titans would wreak absolute havoc on defenses. It would make the Wildcat look as innovative as the single wing. OK, bad example, but the point still stands. It would be awesome to watch.
Fine, I'll ask
Five questions about Sunday's New Orleans-Atlanta game:
• Given the presence of the SEC title game and how poorly the Falcons played against the Eagles, were the Falcons the fourth best team in Atlanta last weekend?
• How the heck did a guy dumb enough to bet on a double-digit underdog straight up, with nothing to gain, afford such a nice television in the first place?
• Also, why did Saints fans get to shoot the TV? Shouldn't Redskins fans have been destroying stuff after that loss?
• If the Atlanta airport is so far behind that it's just getting a rental car center, can we expect the first Cinnabon to appear by 2025?
• Given his successful appearance with Jay Leno, could we get the "Drew Brees Variety Hour" into development stat?
Storyline we care about
The Patriots need something to shake them up, and we like the fact that Belichick's rage is truly blind, affecting superstars like Randy Moss and lesser-known players like Gary Guyton alike. But given his track record and his love of stretching the truth on injury reports, we doubt these players were punished just for being late. If given a guess, we'd say Guyton and Derrick Burgess were sent away for having a 5 in their uniform numbers, in defiance of Belichick's ban on all reminders of how many games the Patriots have lost. Adalius Thomas was banished for future insubordination (you can't even think about disrespecting Belichick; he's like a precog). And Moss had to be dismissed because the family of birds living in his beard wouldn't stop chirping, which is just below children's laughter on the list of things Belichick hates.
Storyline we don't care about
This little showdown is so dumb. Ocho acts out, and the NFL fines him. It happens again and again. This latest incident isn't a challenge or a double-dog dare; it's business as usual. Ocho isn't going to stop his antics, because this is how he has fun and he can afford it -- it probably earns him more in endorsements than it costs him in fines anyway. The NFL isn't going to back down, because the league is committed to a certain course of action regarding player conduct. But the league also isn't going to suspend Ocho unless he does something much more egregious than put on a hat. Let's just get used to this. The cycle is going to keep repeating itself -- although maybe Ocho should consider spending $20K to sponsor an open bar at the NFL company Christmas party instead, to try to get everyone to loosen up.
Patrick Swayze's pep talk
Swayze's action movies were undeniably awesome, and his passing earlier this year was incredibly sad. In a small attempt to pay tribute, we'll relay some of his words of wisdom in this space each week in an effort to fire up a particular player or team.
"You're going to have to figure something else out, because we cannot afford a lobotomy."
-- Wayne Saunders, "Christmas in Wonderland"
The Cowboys have gotten an earful about their recent history in December, and it can't be helping their cause. As the saying goes, "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it" -- but we'd argue that those who can't escape hearing about it for five minutes are also good bets to replicate past performance. We don't know how the Cowboys will get past it, but they have to if the coaches and players want to keep their jobs. Jerry Jones doesn't do lobotomies, as he doesn't care for a surgical strike. He prefers to just cut off the whole head.
Most important fantasy players
Joe Flacco: He was pretty bad Monday night, but his matchup versus the Lions makes him a starter this week. Perhaps if someone provides him with a banana clip to keep his eyebrows out of his face, he'll find his groove again.
Ray Rice: Detroit is even worse at defending the run than it is against the pass. Not that it matters much, because Rice can hurt the Lions both ways. Good luck to all fantasy teams facing Rice this weekend -- hope you have a strong counterpunch.
Donald Driver: Just like peppermint bark, wassail and "Scrooged," Driver is seemingly always underrated until this time of year, when people finally look at his performance and realize his tremendous value.
Fred Jackson: Did Marshawn Lynch even make it back from Canada? We haven't heard about him all week, and he's eccentric enough that it wouldn't surprise us if he just stayed up there to work on his stand-up routine. If we hear about a silver-tongued, gold-toothed newcomer killing at the Montreal Comedy Festival next year, we'll know who it is. Either way, it looks like Jackson is the man again in Buffalo, which is great news for fantasy owners who stubbornly stuck by him.
Enjoy Week 14, everyone.
Toby Mergler is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., who has previously written for MLB.com, Fanball and the Virginia Law Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.